UNRWA chief asks donors to reconsider as Germany joins cascade freezing funds

Phillip Lazzarini ‘shocked’ by ‘irresponsible’ moves by 9 countries to cut off contributions to Palestinian refugee agency after staffers found to have participated in Oct.7 massacre

The commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)
The commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

The head of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees urged donor countries not to freeze funds in the wake of allegations that staffers had participated in the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, calling the move “immensely irresponsible” as Germany and Scotland became the latest to announce funding freezes.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini expressed alarm over the cuts, saying they put 2 million Gazans relying on the UN body for humanitarian aid at risk.

“It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation,” Lazzarini said Saturday night.

Nine countries, including the US and Britain, have said they are suspending funding for the agency. The moves came as Lazzarini announced Friday that UNRWA had sacked several staffers and ordered an independent investigation following information from Israel showing that UNRWA employees had been involved in the October 7 onslaught.

Some 1,200 people were killed during the unprecedented attack across southern Israel, most of them civilians. Another 253 people, also largely civilians, were abducted and taken into Gaza, where over 130 remain.

Lazzarini argued Saturday night that the funding suspensions amounted to a form of collective punishment.

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)

“It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region,” he said.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz responded to Lazzarini’s comments by tweeting to him to “please resign.”

Katz earlier called for more donor suspensions, saying UNRWA should be replaced once fighting in the enclave dies down, and accused the agency of ties to Islamist terrorists in Gaza.

UNRWA was set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding and provides education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It helps about two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million population and has played a pivotal aid role during the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Germany and Scotland became the latest places to announce that their governments would no longer fund the agency Saturday night, joining the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland.

The Foreign Ministry in Germany welcomed the investigation, saying it was deeply concerned about the allegations raised against agency employees.

Palestinian terrorists drive to the Gaza Strip with what is believed to be the body of an Israeli woman, on October 7, 2023. (AP/Ali Mahmud)

“We expect Lazzarini to make it clear within UNRWA’s workforce that all forms of hatred and violence are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” it said on X.

The US and Germany make up the agency’s two largest donors, providing around half of the $1.1 billion the agency collected in 2022.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government told local media it had requested updates from UNRWA as the investigation proceeds, and has “no plans to provide further support to UNRWA at this stage.”

Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf, who leads the government, said Lazzarini’s comments Saturday night were “important.”

“The people of Gaza are dying in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe, they cannot be collectively punished. Aid must get to those who are already suffering so badly,” he wrote on X.

Yousaf’s wife is from Gaza and her parents were trapped there for several weeks at the start of the war. He has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Israel’s war with Hamas and for the immediate release of the hostages.

Echoing Lazzarini’s comments, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said “Now is not the time to let [Gazans] down.” He did not directly mention the allegations or funding cuts.

A senior Israeli official told the Axios news site that the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces had provided UNRWA with information that pointed to the active participation of agency staffers along with the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 onslaught.

While the UNRWA statement did not specify how many staffers it had fired, the US said that 12 employees “may have been involved.”

United Nations and Red Crescent workers prepare the aid for distribution to Palestinians at UNRWA warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. (AP/Hassan Eslaiah)

According to Israel’s Kan public broadcaster, Israel passed to the US information that included the names of staffers and “clear” proof that they were involved. The outlet also reported that a number of UNRWA employees were killed inside Israel on October 7.

It is unclear if they were counted among the over 150 UNRWA staffers killed during the conflict.

Israeli officials and their allies — including in the US Congress — frequently allege 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 President Joe Biden restored it.

The agency’s supporters say the allegations 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.

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