France, Japan join UNRWA fund freeze as Jordan warns against ‘collective punishment’

After allegations of staff participation in October 7 massacre, Paris holding off on donation to UN agency for first half of 2024; Turkey expresses concern over funding cuts

Palestinian terrorists walk and drive away from a kibbutz near the border fence with the Gaza Strip, while carrying out a devastating cross-border attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (AP Photo)
File: Palestinian terrorists walk and drive away from a kibbutz near the border fence with the Gaza Strip, while carrying out a devastating cross-border attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (AP)

France and Japan said Sunday that they were suspending funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, becoming the latest country to make such a move after accusations of staff involvement in the Hamas-led October 7 massacre, while Jordan warned that cutting financial support to UNRWA amounted to “collective punishment.”

“France has not planned a new payment for the first half of 2024 and will decide when the time comes on the action to take together with the United Nations and the main donors,” the French Foreign Ministry said, calling the allegations against UNRWA “exceptionally serious.”

Japan’s Foreign Ministry said the country had decided to suspend additional funding to the agency for now, was “extremely concerned about the alleged involvement of UNRWA staff members in the terror attack on Israel,” and has been “strongly urging UNRWA to conduct the investigation in a prompt and complete manner.”

Donors including the US, Germany, Britain, Italy, Australia and Finland announced they had suspended additional funding to the agency, and UNRWA said on Friday it had fired several employees over the unspecified accusations.

In a post on X, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi wrote: “UNRWA is the lifeline for over 2m Palestinians facing starvation in Gaza. It shouldn’t be collectively punished upon allegations against 12 persons out of its 13,000 staff.”

“UNRWA acted responsibly and began an investigation. We urge countries that suspended funds to reverse [their] decision,” Safadi added, echoing a call made on Saturday by UNRWA’s Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini.

The UN agency provides services, such as education and healthcare, in 10 Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan – the only Arab country where Palestinians have been granted citizenship. According to the agency’s data, only about 18% of the country’s two million Palestinians and their descendants still live in camps.

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024. (AFP)

There are today 58 designated refugee camps where UNRWA operates, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz has said the body “must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development” after Gaza’s bloodiest war, and has called for the resignation of the agency’s head Lazzarini.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry on Sunday also expressed concern over the decision made by several countries to suspend funding for UNRWA, and urged them to reconsider their move.

In a statement, the ministry said the suspension of funding, following allegations by Israel that a dozen of its 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in Hamas’s October 7 massacre — in which 1,200 Israelis were murdered and another 253 taken hostage — primarily harmed Palestinian civilians.

File: Workers of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) hand out flour rations and other supplies to people at an UNRWA warehouse in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 12, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on donor states to guarantee the flow of aid to Gaza amid the funding freezes, and said the “abhorrent alleged acts” of some UNRWA staff should not mean that its thousands of other humanitarian workers were penalized.

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry panned the suspension of funds as a demonstration of “deplorable double standards” and “collective punishment.”

Israeli officials and their allies — including in the US Congress — have repeatedly alleged over the years that UNRWA allows anti-Israeli incitement to be taught in its hundreds of schools and that some of its staff collaborate with Hamas. The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but US President Joe Biden restored it.

The agency’s supporters say the allegations against it aim to diminish the long-festering refugee issue. Last week, Lazzarini said he would appoint an independent entity to look into the claims — both “what is true or untrue” and “what is politically motivated.” He also said the accusations were hurting the agency’s already stretched operations.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 26,000 people have been killed and some 64,000 people wounded in the war, in unverified figures which include close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel said it has killed during fighting in the Strip.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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