Aid wars over Gaza: Australia yet to resume funding to UNRWA

March 13, 2024
Funding UNWRA is a popular chant and sign at Palestine protests around Australia. This one is from Gadigal/Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

Israel’s ruthless campaign to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is unravelling.

The lynchpin in Israel’s effort was a thin dossier that claimed 12 individuals were Hamas operatives who had been involved in the October 7 attacks. Within a matter of days, two internal investigations began, various individuals were sacked, and US$450 million worth of funding from donor states suspended.

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s head, told the media on March 4 he has “never been informed” or received evidence of Israel’s claims substantiating their assertions, although he did receive Israeli officials’ prompt about the 12.

Every year, Israel and the Palestinian authorities are furnished with staff lists “and I never received the slightest concern about the staff that we have been employing”.

Had Israeli authorities signed off on these alleged participants in bungling or conspiratorial understanding?

There was more than a whiff of distraction about it all, given that Israel had come off poorly in The Hague proceedings launched by South Africa.

There was a wave of initial success in starving the agency of funding, with a number of countries announcing plans to freeze theirs. Irate members of the United States Congress accused the UNRWA of having “longstanding connections to terrorism and promotion of antisemitism”.

hearing was duly held titled, “UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures” with Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies frothing that UNWRA supposedly incited “violence against Israel, subsidizes US-designated terrorist organizations, denies Palestinians their basic human rights and blocks the pathways to a sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians”.

But the attempt to obliterate UNRWA has not worked. Questions were asked about the 12 alleged militants and media outlets began questioning the numbers.

Funding is being resumed. Canada, for instance, approved “the robust investigative process underway” and acknowledged that “more can be done to respond to the urgent needs of Palestinian civilians”.

Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East said the initial funding cancellation had been “a reckless political decision that never should have been made”.

The Swedish government was encouraged by UNWRA’s undertakings “to allow independent auditing, strengthen internal supervision and enable additional staff controls”, promising an initial outlay of 200 million kroner (US$19 million).

Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, promised it would “monitor closely to ensure UNRWA follows through on what it has promised”.

Aid policy spokesperson for the Christian Democrats, Gudrun Brunegård, also conceded that, given Gazans’ “huge” needs, UNRWA was “the organisation that is best positioned to help vulnerable Palestinians”.

Much the same was expressed by the European Union, with the Commission agreeing to pay 50 million Euros to UNRWA, from a promised total of 82 million Euros, on the proviso that EU-appointed experts audit the screening of staff.

“This audit,” the European Commission said, “will review the control systems to prevent the possible involvement of its staff and assets in terrorist activities”.

Having been found wanting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did a screeching about-turn and insisted that the EU stood “by the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere in the region. Innocent Palestinians should not have to pay the price for the crimes of [the] terrorist group Hamas [sic].”

Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi expressed satisfaction at “the commitment of UNRWA to introduce robust measures to prevent possible misconduct and minimise the risk of allegations”.

At no point was Israel’s insatiable vendetta against UNWRA mentioned.

The bombast by Israel was further discoloured by claims from the agency that UNRWA staff had been victims of torture at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in drafting the dossier.

UNRWA said: “These forced confessions as a result of torture are being used by the Israeli Authorities to further spread misinformation about the agency as part of attempts to dismantle UNRWA.”

In doing so Israel was “putting our staff at risk and has serious implications on our operations in Gaza and around the region”.

The IDF claimed this was exaggerated: “The mistreatment of detainees during their time in detention or whilst under interrogation violates IDF values and contravenes IDF [sic] and is therefore absolutely prohibited.”

Despite growing concern about the allegations, Israel declared that 450 URWA employees in Gaza were members of militant groups, including Hamas.

Those making that allegation decided that evidence of such claims was not needed. Those employees, claimed Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari “are military operatives in terror groups in Gaza”.

“This was no coincidence. This is systematic. There is no claiming, ‘We did not know’.”

In the fog of war, mendacity thrives. But the suggestion by various donor states — Australia being a notable exception — is that the humanitarian incentive to ameliorate Gazans’ suffering must take precedence over Israel’s allegations.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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