Norwegian FM predicts UNRWA donor countries that froze funding will reverse course

Espen Barth Eide says many likely having second thoughts after suspending payments over participation of agency staffers in Oct. 7 onslaught; Qatar, Iraq pledge $25 million each

This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli army on February 8, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Jack Guez/AFP)
This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli army on February 8, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Many countries that paused funding to the embattled UN Palestinian refugee agency are likely having second thoughts and payments could resume soon, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said on Wednesday.

Several countries, including the United States and Britain, paused their funding to UNRWA after accusations that a dozen of its 13,000 staff in Gaza actively participated in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed and 253 were abducted into Gaza.

Norway, a top donor to UNRWA, has maintained its funding and transferred 275 million crowns ($26 million) in February, its regular annual contribution, and said more could come. It is also lobbying countries that have paused funding to resume.

“I think that a large number of those countries who suspended are (having) second thoughts,” Barth Eide told Reuters in an interview, citing the recognition from these nations that “they cannot punish the whole Palestinian society.”

“This is increasingly recognized and agreed by many,” he said, after meeting Norwegian aid organizations to take stock of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

“But then, of course, they need an honorable way out, which means they are hoping, I think — without speaking for individual countries — that they will get something from these investigations that suggest that they can say: “Well, we needed to suspend, but now we’re back.'”

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide speaks during a Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

The UN is conducting an internal probe, while former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna is leading an independent review.

Juliette Touma, UNRWA director of communications, said none of the 16 donors that had frozen their funding had resumed yet, and urged them to reconsider their decisions.

“We are operating from hand-to-mouth. That’s how we got through February. That’s how we will get through March,” she told Reuters. “Every penny counts.”

Israel initially accused 12 UNRWA employees of participating in the Hamas attack, including one who was seen on CCTV abducting the body of an Israeli back to Gaza. Last week it released audio recordings incriminating two more UNRWA workers of allegedly joining in the assault.

Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, claimed Monday that he has “never been informed” or received any evidence of Israel’s claims. Every year, he said, UNRWA provides Israel and the Palestinian Authority with a list of its staff “and I never have received the slightest concern about the staff that we have been employing.”

Lazzarini warned on Monday of “a deliberate and concerted campaign” aimed at ending its operations as Israel accused the organization of employing over 450 “military operatives” from Hamas and other armed groups.

The only allegation communicated to him verbally was about the 12 UNRWA staffers alleged to have participated in the October 7 attack, he asserted, and they appeared so serious that they were fired.

UNRWA in a statement has accused Israel of detaining several of its staffers and forcing them, using torture and ill-treatment, into giving false confessions about the links between the agency, Hamas, and the October 7 attack. The Israel Defense Forces has said any mistreatment was “absolutely prohibited,” denied all allegations of sexual abuse, and said it was investigating any complaints of inappropriate behavior.

Illustrative: UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)


It was difficult for the US to “come back” to UNRWA, the Norwegian minister said, but there could be solutions, he said, with an “understanding between the US and Europe” on sharing the work.

“The US could do more of something else and Europeans (could) concentrate more on UNRWA,” he said, adding that “the combination of Europeans stepping up and Arab states (as well) is probably necessary.”

Qatar said on Wednesday it would give an extra $25 million to the UN agency. Iraq pledged the same amount.

There had been suggestions early on by some donors to replace UNRWA with another humanitarian organization, Barth Eide said, but that idea was now “off the table.”

“They were told by the rest of the international humanitarian community, UN agencies and NGOs that there is no way to do that in time,” he said.

People walk past the damaged Gaza City headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) on February 15, 2024. (AFP)

On Friday the European Commission said it would pay 50 million euros ($54 million) to UNRWA but hold back 32 million euros ($34 million) while it investigates the Israeli allegations.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the continued funding showed that the EU acknowledged UNRWA “as an irreplaceable actor.”

Britain is awaiting the outcome of the Colonna-led review, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

The UK government expects the report in the coming weeks and will then provide an update. Britain has distributed all its planned funding for UNRWA for this financial year. Its next payment — around 35 million pounds ($45 million) — is due in May.

A Canadian government official told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Ottawa will restore its UNRWA funding as well.

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