Tents for Palestinians seeking refuge are set up on the grounds of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) centre in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023 (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Israel/OPT: States must reverse cruel decision to withdraw UNRWA funding

The decisions by at least 9 donor countries to suspend funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), following allegations that individual staff members were involved in the 7 October attacks in southern Israel, will deal a devastating blow to more than two million refugees in the occupied Gaza Strip for whom the organization serves as a sole lifeline, said Amnesty International. The organization is urging states to reverse their decisions and refrain from suspending funding to UNRWA.

“It is deeply shocking – indeed inhumane – that several governments have taken decisions that will cause further suffering to two million Palestinians, who are already facing the risk of genocide and an engineered famine just days after the International Court of Justice ruling concluded that the survival of Palestinians in Gaza is at risk. It is particularly appalling that such action has been taken over allegations concerning 12 employees out of UNRWA’s entire staff of 30,000,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

“The allegations over the involvement of UNRWA staff in the 7 October attacks are serious and must be independently investigated; anyone against whom there is sufficient admissible evidence should be prosecuted in fair trials. But the alleged actions of a few individuals must not be used as a pretext for cutting off life-saving assistance in what could amount to collective punishment.”

The UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Finland, USA, Australia, and Canada are among the states that have paused funding to the aid agency. Together, they provided more than half of UNRWA’s budget in 2022. The decision follows allegations that 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attacks in Israel carried out by Hamas. UNRWA immediately dismissed nine employees over the allegations and has launched an investigation.

At a time when Israel, the occupying power, continues to flagrantly violate its obligations vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, UNRWA has long served as a sole lifeline, offering indispensable humanitarian aid, education and shelter. The agency also provides desperately needed aid for millions of other Palestinian refugees living in neighbouring Arab countries.

Norway, Spain, Ireland and Belgium are among states that have announced they will not suspend funding, recognizing the vital role that UNRWA continues to play in the distribution of humanitarian aid to those in desperate need.  

It is disgraceful that instead of heeding the ICJ’s ruling, and the court’s finding that the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is at serious risk of deteriorating further, key states, including the United States, Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, and France have cut off funding to the main provider of aid for civilians in Gaza.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General

“All states have a clear duty to ensure the ICJ measures are implemented, including those ordering Israel to take immediate and effective measures to ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians in Gaza as a key step to preventing genocide and further irreparable harm.

“Some of the very governments that announced they will cut off funds to UNRWA over these allegations have, in the meantime, continued to arm Israeli forces despite overwhelming evidence that these arms are used to commit war crimes and serious human rights violations. Rushing to freeze funds for humanitarian aid, based on allegations that are still being investigated, while refusing to even consider suspending support for the Israeli military is a stark example of double standards,” said Agnès Callamard.

“Instead of suspending vital funding to those in need states should be working to halt arms transfers to Israel and Palestinian armed groups and pushing for an immediate and sustained ceasefire and full humanitarian access to help alleviate devastating suffering.”

The state of Israel and right-wing groups have for years led a smear campaign against UNRWA, which plays a key role in protecting Palestinians’ right of return to their lands.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed France and Switzerland as among the countries who have suspended funding to UNRWA. In fact, France and Switzerland (along with Denmark, Poland, the EU and New Zealand) have announced they will wait for the result of the UN investigation to take a decision on suspending funding to UNRWA.
As of 31 January 2024 , 15 states had announced the suspension of funding to UNRWA. These are: Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, USA, Iceland, UK, Japan and Australia.

What else can I do to help?

For more ways to take action and further information on the current crisis and Amnesty’s work on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, check out the action toolkit on our country page.

Top image: Tents for Palestinians seeking refuge are set up on the grounds of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) centre in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19, 2023. Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.