EU top diplomat says defunding UNRWA ‘collective punishment,’ will endanger lives

Josep Borrell confident agency will take action against those who took part in Oct. 7 massacre while remaining ‘lifeline’ for Palestinians

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell poses for a photo after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, February 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Havana)
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell poses for a photo after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, February 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Havana)

The European Union’s top diplomat said on Sunday that cutting funds to UNRWA would put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, amid allegations some of the UN Palestinian refugee agency’s staff were involved in the October 7 Hamas massacre in Israel.

A string of countries, including the United States, Britain, and Italy, have paused funding to the aid agency, which has opened an investigation into several of its thousands of employees and severed ties with those people over accusations that they were involved in the brutal onslaught, in which Palestinian terrorists killed some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped 253 to Gaza.

Many other employees have ties to terror groups, according to Israeli intelligence, The Wall Street Journal reported.

UNRWA on Thursday said its entire operations in the Middle East, not only in Gaza, will likely be forced to shut down by the end of February if its funding remains suspended.

“Defunding UNRWA would be both disproportionate and dangerous,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote in a blog post.

“The wrongdoing of individuals should never lead to the collective punishment of an entire population,” he said.

File: Palestinians demonstrate in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), January 30, 2024. (AFP)

Borrell claimed neither the European Commission nor the EU’s two biggest economies, Germany or France, had decided to end their contributions, though both Berlin and Paris have announced they would not approve new funding to the body due to the allegations.

Funds paused by other donors amount to more than $440 million, nearly half of the agency’s expected income this year, he said.

In 2022, the EU was the third biggest donor to UNRWA, after the United States and Germany.

“The lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, not only in Gaza, are at stake,” Borrell said.

UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war surrounding the founding of Israel, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.

It employs 30,000 Palestinians to serve the civic and humanitarian needs of 5.9 million descendants of those refugees — in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, and in vast camps in neighboring Arab countries.

The 12 staffers at UNRWA alleged to have been involved in the October 7 onslaught. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“I am confident that the UN will take all the necessary measures following the Israeli allegations, and that UNRWA will continue to be a vital lifeline for millions of Palestinian people,” Borrell added.

Israel’s  allegations against UNRWA are the latest in a decades-long feud between the Jewish state and the aid agency.

Israeli officials have claimed that UNRWA perpetuates Palestinian grievances, and accuse it of fostering hatred for the Jewish state in its schools’ textbooks. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the organization’s dismantlement and replacement.

However, some Israeli officials have voiced concern over the potential economic fallout of axing the agency — one of the largest employers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — midwar.

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