UNRWA funding must continue to avoid ‘collective punishment,’ warns Commissioner Lenarčič

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The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) must continue to receive “adequate funding” to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, has said.

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His warning comes as uncertainty mounts over the future of the EU’s development aid to UNRWA.

The agency is at a breaking point after Western countries suspended donations following allegations twelve of its staff members were involved in Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel, which left more than 1,200 Israelis dead and sparked a war in Gaza that has claimed the lives of more than 29,000 Palestinians.

The serious allegations, levelled by Israel on the same day the UN’s top court ordered it to prevent genocide in Gaza,  sparked fears of possible infiltration by Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by the EU, into the Western-funded UN agency.

The European Commission, one of UNRWA’s largest donors, said in January it would **review**its funding in light of the steps taken by the agency to audit its recruitment procedures, bolster its internal oversight mechanisms and vet its 30,000-strong workforce.

It is not yet clear whether the next scheduled EU payment in development aid of €82 million, due this week, will be suspended or not. 

But Lenarčič suggested that failing to prop up UNRWA while a humanitarian disaster grips the Gaza Strip would have “catastrophic consequences” and put regional stability at risk.

“In line with EU values – and while we are working constructively with UNRWA on the reinforcement of their internal controls, an audit carried by EU-appointed experts and the vetting system for their staff – it remains of crucial importance to provide UNRWA with adequate funding,” Lenarčič told the European Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

“We have to be clear, there is simply no substitute for UNRWA,” Lenarčič explained. “Individual accountability must be ensured. But collective punishment cannot be the answer.”

Several nations suspended payments to UNRWA in the wake of the scandal, including Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Others, like Spain, Ireland and Belgium, continued their support.

While the EU has not suspended deliveries of humanitarian aid, the sudden exodus of Western donors has dealt a devastating blow to the donor-reliant agency, which says its deliveries of humanitarian cargo have halved since January. 

Fewer trucks carrying aid have been able to enter Gaza in February compared to January and December, and the UN has warned that pockets of famine are appearing in Gaza. Many humanitarian organisations, including the UN’s World Food Programme, have paused food deliveries to the north of the enclave given that the chaos wrought by the humanitarian crisis has made conditions unsafe for relief workers.

UNRWA’s commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini said earlier this month he hoped the EU would continue to back the agency, and that his conversations with the Commission to safeguard future funding had been “very constructive.”

Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, also strongly suggested that European assistance would flow as originally anticipated given that UNRWA had launched the investigation that Brussels had called for.

MEPs split on UNRWA

But the EU and its 27 member states have consistently failed to consolidate a common position on the war between Israel and Hamas since it broke out in October, with leaders taking divergent stance on the conflict.

Those rifts were evident during a tense debate between Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in the plenary chamber in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Several MEPs, predominantly from left-leaning groups, claimed Israel had failed to provide concrete evidence to back their claims that UNRWA staff had taken part in the October 7th attacks.

Lenarčič also confirmed the Commission had not yet received evidence to back the claims, and that to his knowledge neither had any other donors.

Last Wednesday, the Washington Post published a video that Israel alleges shows a UN relief worker participating in the October 7 attack. But UN leaders have continued to underline that the allegations are yet to be corroborated.

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Another camp of right-leaning MEPs fiercely condemned the Commission for injecting cash into an organisation they say is infiltrated by Hamas militants, and denied that its work in Gaza was irreplaceable.

Directly addressing Josep Borrell, Swedish MEP David Lega of the centre-right European People’s Party said: “You’ve said you fully trust you and leadership to get to the bottom of alleged complicity in Hamas terrorism.”

“What will it take for you to understand that your trust is frankly irrelevant if UNRWA loses the trust of parties involved?” he went on, adding that EU aid to Gaza must go to more “responsible, more neutral, more trusted partners.”

“Without UNRWA, Palestinian children will starve,” Malin Björk, from The Left, responded. 

“How do we distinguish between different human lives? Why is a Palestinian life not worth anything?” she asked.

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Barry Andrews, an Irish lawmaker from the Renew Europe group, called on member states to make decisions “not based on punitive political decisions but on evidence” and on the Commission to restore its payments to support the “irreplaceable and heroic work of UNRWA.”



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