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Despite Looming Gaza Famine, U.S. Halts UNRWA Funding After Israel Claims 12 U.N. Staff Aided 10/7 Attack

StoryJanuary 29, 2024
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On the same day the U.N.'s highest court accepted South Africa's case alleging genocide in Gaza, Israel accused 12 employees with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, of taking part in the Hamas attack on October 7. The United States and at least 10 other nations have now suspended funding to the agency, which retains a staff of over 13,000 and provides essential aid to most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents. “It’s the worst possible reaction to these allegations,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He calls for an investigation but says donors must continue to support aid groups, with UNRWA being the most important. “All of us combined other groups are not even close to being what UNRWA is for the people of Gaza,” says Egeland. UNRWA has responded to the allegations by announcing the group will “immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups are denouncing the move by the United States and at least 12 other countries to temporarily suspend funding to UNRWA — that’s the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees — after Israel accused 12 UNRWA employees of helping Hamas stage the October 7th attack. Nine of the employees have been fired. UNRWA said two of the accused employees are dead.

UNRWA is one of the largest employers in Gaza, with a staff of over 13,000. It provides aid to most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents. The agency has long been targeted by Israel. Since Israel’s assault on Gaza began, over 150 UNRWA staffers have been killed.

Francesca Albanese, U.N. special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said on social media, quote, “The day after @ICJ concluded that Israel is plausibly committing Genocide in Gaza, some states decided to defund UNRWA, collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time, and most likely violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention,” unquote.

Meanwhile, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini condemned the freezing of funds at a time when famine looms in Gaza. He said, quote, “Palestinians in Gaza did not need [this] additional collective punishment. This stains all of us,” he said. And the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has urged donor nations to continue supporting UNRWA.

For more, we’re going to Oslo, Norway, where we’re joined by Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Norway has decided to continue its funding of UNRWA.

Jan, thanks so much for being with us. Can you start off by responding to the cutting off of funding at a time when, among other things, Gaza is under bombardment and is on the edge of famine?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, it’s the worst possible reaction to these allegations that some — I mean, maybe a dozen — of the 13,000 UNRWA aid workers betrayed our humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence and participated in the horrific attacks on Israel. That, however, was met immediately with the response of UNRWA by, as you said, firing these staff and now having an independent investigation. What the donors did — the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Australia and some others did — was to cut all aid to the children of Gaza, to the women in Gaza, to the completely innocent there. It’s the worst possible move, at a time when this trapped population is under bombardment. Do not punish the many innocent for the sins of the few who did very wrong, it seems.

AMY GOODMAN: Now it will be interesting to see if Israel hands over the evidence for the U.N. to investigate this situation, because we’re talking about an immediate cutoff by many of these nations, suspending weapons. I wanted to read you a clip of the former Israeli official Noga Arbell, who said, “It will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately.” The Prime Minister Netanyahu said there will be no UNRWA in postwar Gaza. Your response, Jan Egeland? And talk about the — you’re the head of large humanitarian aid group. How important is UNRWA to all of the groups, not to mention the people on the ground?

JAN EGELAND: UNRWA is completely essential. I mean, it’s true that I lead the NRC, Norwegian Refugee Council. We’re a large humanitarian group, across the world. We’re on all sides of all conflict lines, for the displaced and the refugees. And we’ve been in Gaza for two decades. We’ve been funded all over the world by the United States and by 40 other donor nations and international agencies.

In Gaza, we have to recognize that all of us combined other groups are not even close to be what UNRWA is for the people of Gaza. UNRWA was the response to the creation of Israel and the 1948 War that displaced so many of the original Palestinian population to Gaza, to the West Bank and elsewhere. UNRWA was then created to give them relief and works. Since then, there has not been a political, peaceful settlement. And that is because the international community has not been able to force the parties, Israel and the Palestinians, to settle this conflict, and thereby we end up by having humanitarian groups like, first and foremost, UNRWA provide for the population.

So, to undermine and undercut UNRWA as extremists, which the Israeli government are doing, is basically to say, “We’re going to punish the women and children, the innocent, on the other side for what some extremists have done, in a situation of utter turmoil and perpetuous conflict, that we’re not ourselves willing to try to settle with talks on a future.” It’s very wrong.

And the international donors must stay with the humanitarian organizations, like Norway did. Norway is a large donor, giving much more per capita to Palestinians than any other donor. We stay with UNRWA, and we say, “Good that you terminated all of those contracts and fired these people, and good that there is an investigation, and then we’ll draw the conclusions what we should do for the future.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, what evidence is there of Israel’s charges? Have they handed over the evidence?

JAN EGELAND: As far as I know, it’s not been received by UNRWA or by the U.N. investigators. I hope they will be received, so that they can do a thorough investigation of this, very serious allegations. I read about them in The New York Times. And if it’s true, again, they betrayed all of our principles, really — neutrality, impartiality, etc. — that is so important for us, who are unarmed humanitarian workers in the crossfire around the world.

But, of course, no one who’s working across the Middle East can guarantee that there are not people within our midst that may, in the end, have hidden agendas. Palestinians cannot do that. Israelis cannot do that. We know of many Israelis who have done very bad things in Gaza, shooting at people with white flags. It’s documented and detailed. They’ve even shot their own people with white flags. They have settler organizations, Mafia-style settler organizations, displacing unarmed women and children and families across the West Bank. Many of these are recruited to the Israeli Defense Forces. They belong in jail, but they are in the Israeli Defense Forces. No one can guarantee that there are not problems. Therefore, they have to be investigated, and there has to be action taken every time something happens. But don’t cut funding to people in great need. It’s the worst possible response.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, I want to thank you for being with us, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Oslo. I’m Amy Goodman. This is another edition of Democracy Now!

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“The U.S. and Israel Stand Alone”: World Demands Ceasefire as Gaza Death Toll Tops 20,000

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