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Ex-UNRWA Official: Funding Cuts Make Donor Countries Complicit in Starvation of Gaza

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As Israel’s assault on Gaza has displaced the majority of Palestinians in Gaza, more than half are sheltering in facilities run by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. Despite being the largest humanitarian agency in Gaza, UNRWA says it may run out of funds by the end of the month, after at least 18 states or institutions, including many of the agency’s biggest funders, announced they were suspending their donations in January. The cuts came after the Israeli government accused several UNRWA employees of participating in the Hamas attack on October 7. Israel made the allegations in a document it provided to foreign governments which apparently contained no direct evidence of the claims. “As of now, the evidence simply does not exist” outside of this “dodgy Israeli dossier,” says Chris Gunness, former chief spokesperson for UNRWA. He slams donors who have pulled their funding as “doing Israel’s political bidding” in its “scheme to dismantle UNRWA” and further dispossess Palestinians in Gaza.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Fears are growing in Rafah over an imminent Israeli ground invasion after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a Hamas proposal for a ceasefire on Wednesday and ordered the military to attack the southernmost city in the territory. Over 1.2 million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah after being displaced in the Israeli assault. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said a ground invasion of Rafah would, quote, “exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences,” he said.

Aid agencies are warning of famine amid profound food shortages, with a quarter of a million people in Gaza already starving. The healthcare system has collapsed, and the lack of water and sanitation has prompted outbreaks of illness and disease. Most of the residents in Gaza have been internally displaced, with more than half the population sheltering in facilities run by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Despite being the largest humanitarian agency in Gaza, UNRWA says it may run out of funds by the end of the month, after at least 18 states or institutions, including many of the agency’s biggest funders, announced they were suspending their donations last month. The cuts came after the Israeli government accused several UNRWA employees of participating in the Hamas attack on October 7th. Israel made the allegations in a document it provided to foreign governments, which apparently contain no direct evidence of the claims. Several news outlets, including Britain’s Channel 4, the Financial Times and Sky News, have all reported the document provided no evidence to support the conclusions that the agency’s staff were involved in the October 7th attacks. Meanwhile, Australia’s foreign minister said today she did not have all the evidence about the allegations and that she was working to bring an end to the suspension of funds. The government of Canada has also not seen any evidence to back up Israel’s claim, according to CBC News. UNRWA is set to lose $65 million in funding by the end of February as a result of the cuts, according to The New York Times. The agency relies on government contributions to fund its operations in occupied Palestine, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

For more, we’re joined in London by the former spokesperson for UNRWA, Chris Gunness. He’s now the director of the Myanmar Accountability Project.

Chirs Gunness, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you could begin by responding to this news about UNRWA possibly running out of funds by the end of this month, losing $65 million?

CHRIS GUNNESS: It’s extremely sad, and it’s extremely regrettable, because UNRWA wants nothing more than to work, as it’s done for decades, with its donors in a very cooperative relationship to restore funding. UNRWA has taken robust and resolute action. The commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, sacked these workers, even before the external investigation and the internal, the OIOS report in New York, even before that had barely started. This was resolute action as part of a zero-tolerance policy.

And it’s with regret I say that I hope that the donors get onto the right side of history and get onto the right side of humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. And I say with regret that it’s possible, at least, that even the Genocide Convention, which calls on state parties, including most of these defunders, to prevent genocide. And what is happening is that this starvation, which the U.N. correctly says is breaking out, the U.N. assesses that it’s possible that more people will die of starvation than the actual military assault. So, it’s with great regret I say that donors need to come back into the fold.

And just if I can give you just one example. We’re seeing in The New York Times these appalling pictures of these Abu Ghraib-style humiliating actions by individual Israeli soldiers. Will American officials, will American audiences judge the Israeli army by the action of a few? No, it will judge the Israeli army by the response of the Israeli army to these appalling, appalling images. And I say that is the basis upon which UNRWA should be judged, not the actions, which remain entirely unproven, as we now stand, against a few bad apples; it must judge the agency by how it responds. How has the agency responded? With robust and resolute and swift action as part of a zero-tolerance policy that is inculcated in the agency. And it’s been done in partnership with the donors. This is a failure not of UNRWA. If it’s a failure, it’s a failure of the donor community, as well, that’s been working so closely.

And even Mr. Blinken, the [U.S.] secretary of state, has said that the Americans have not been able independently to corroborate this evidence, the — what I’m calling, and what is now established in the international discourse, the “dodgy dossier.” That’s a reference to the dossier, the intelligence dossier, upon which Mr. Blair, former British prime minister, took Britain to war in Iraq. It was the dodgy dossier.

Do the donors want to be judged by history as potentially adding to a starvation, complicity potentially with the genocide against the crime of — the crime of crimes, genocide? No. They need to come back onto the right side of history and of the law and of humanitarian principles and immediately resume the funding of UNRWA. That’s the logical, that’s the humane, that’s the compassionate thing for the donors to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Gunness, can you talk about what UNRWA does, how large it is? And, I mean, you talk about this Israeli dossier. We just saw CBC said the Canadian government hasn’t seen the evidence of this. The U.S. government says they haven’t seen actually the evidence, where they’re talking about something like nine or 12 UNRWA employees, of, what, 13,000 in Gaza, over 30,000 overall. Talk about the history of UNRWA.

CHRIS GUNNESS: I think it’s important, in conceiving of UNRWA, both historically and its activities today, to think of it not as an aid agency, but as a government. So, UNRWA runs, in Syria, Jordan, West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon, schools, 550 schools, so schools for 550,000 students. UNRWA’s primary health clinics have 7 million patient visits a year. UNRWA has nearly 2 million food recipients across the region. That’s the core budget. That’s the education, relief and social services, and the primary health. As well as that, UNRWA has emergency programs. So, UNRWA does these core services — education, health, relief and social services — for as many as 6 million Palestine refugees across the region, in some of the most vulnerable, isolated, fragile communities. But when emergencies happen — for example, the Gaza war — UNRWA has to keep these life-saving, regionally stabilizing services ticking over, while it turns to the emergency.

And that’s what it’s done historically. It became operational on the ground in May 1950. And as its title suggests, it did relief, humanitarian relief, for the 750,000 people who fled or were forced from their homes fleeing in the 1948 War. And it also did works. It did job creation programs, if you like. But when it became apparent that the Israeli government was not going to grant them what the Universal Declaration grants all people, which is the right to return home, UNRWA then realized that it had a huge refugee population whose children needed education, that needed primary health, that needed all sorts of services. So UNRWA gradually grew in response to the humanitarian need of the refugees that UNRWA was serving.

Cut to today, huge education program — that’s the biggest program — and, by the way, offering children around the Middle East an escape from the drudgery and the isolation, the vulnerability, the fragility, the marginalization, and offering them the chance to be citizens of the world, to put their refugee status behind them, rather than perpetuating this refugee status, which, you know, that’s an accusation that’s often thoughtlessly thrown at UNRWA. UNRWA offers refugees an escape from that narrative and that kind of life, which is why it is such a tragedy that based on a dodgy Israeli dossier, this huge existential crisis has been triggered within UNRWA, perhaps the worst in its history, and the donors have become complicit.

As Penny Wong, the Australian foreign minister, has said, as you’ve just quoted in the news, she hasn’t seen the evidence. No donor has seen the evidence, because, as of now, the evidence simply does not exist. There’s nothing that links these dozen or so former UNRWA workers — I stress the word “former” — with the alleged crimes.

So, let’s get the funding resumed. Let’s avoid a mass starvation. And to be clear, starvation is a massacre in slow motion. And that slow-motion massacre has already begun. The donors need to realize the enormity of what they have unleashed, and come back immediately into the fold, where UNRWA will embrace them and will work with them to deal with these issues, as it has always done throughout its history.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the news conference that Secretary of State Tony Blinken held yesterday in Tel Aviv. A few journalists got to ask questions, and this was the question on UNRWA.

SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: On UNRWA, look, we were deeply concerned by the allegations that were made about the participation or involvement of some of its employees in the – in October 7th. And it’s imperative that, as the U.N. has said it’s doing, that there be a thorough investigation, that there be clear accountability, and that there be clear measures put in place to make sure that this can’t happen again, that personnel working for it were not in any way involved in terrorism or the events of October 7th. We know that the work that UNRWA performs, the functions that it performs, have to be preserved, because so many lives are depending on it.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to go back to Washington, D.C., where Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press spokesperson, was asked about the fact that Channel 4, Sky News and the Financial Times found no evidence of UNRWA involvement in the October 7th Hamas attack.

NADIA BILBASSY-CHARTERS: One more question on Gaza: Did the White House receive an ironclad evidence that, actually, the UNRWA staff members, 12 of them, were involved in the October 7 attack? Because four news organizations, including Financial Times, Channel 4 and Sky News, found no evidence to support the Israeli claim. They said, actually, what they provided was just cellphone messages and cards that had been found after Israel went to the —




NADIA BILBASSY-CHARTERS: So, where are you in the process of reviewing that? And second, considering the disaster humanitarian situation in Gaza, what’s the alternative, if you’re waiting for the results to come out or the review to come out?

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: As you know, there’s an investigation happening, so we’re going to let that investigation move forward. And look, you know, funding for Palestinian civilians is a team effort. And so, for example, while we continue to provide funding to organizations like WFP, other countries may continue to fund UNRWA, which is their own sovereign decision. That is their right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Karine Jean-Pierre saying that they think that they’re continuing the investigation, yet they’ve already cut the funding. Meanwhile, Australia, who did also defund, says they are now reevaluating. Chris Gunness, you have called the cutting of aid to UNRWA — the U.S. most important, overwhelmingly gives the more than any other country — immoral and illegal. Why illegal?

CHRIS GUNNESS: Because it’s very clear that international humanitarian law, which expressly prohibits the use of humanitarian aid, food aid, as a political weapon. And the Genocide Convention makes it an obligation on state parties to prevent genocide. And if you don’t prevent genocide, then you are guilty of violating the convention. And the fact that mass starvation is already breaking out suggests that the Genocide Convention is being violated.

But if I may, Amy, just return to some of the things Mr. Blinken said, notice — I mean, let’s be forensic about this. He used the word “allegation,” not “evidence.” Now, there is a vast, gaping gap between allegations, which anyone can make, frankly, and evidence, which needs to be corroborated. And the fact that the American intelligence services, the best, allegedly — certainly the best resourced, I should say — in the world, has not been able independently to corroborate this information, which has triggered this huge crisis, that is, I think, very, very revealing. It’s also revealing, incidentally, at the end of that soundbite you heard Mr. Blinken saying UNRWA’s work is indispensable. And I think we can talk about this whole idea of replacing UNRWA.

But you heard the spokeswoman talking about accountability. Well, let’s look at what UNRWA has done. Even before the internal U.N., at the highest level, investigation had barely started, and certainly before the external investigation had barely started, UNRWA took robust action against this. It has in place — and it’s worked for years with the donors — accountability frameworks and mechanisms. Staff are screened. The very fact the Israelis know these names is because UNRWA, as part of the zero-tolerance policy and its commitment to neutrality, passed on to the Israelis last May — let’s be precise — the entire staff list of UNRWA in Gaza and the West Bank in digital form to the Israelis. It had already been run through the Security Council’s terrorism list. And Israel didn’t come back with a single complaint. It was only until after the ICJ ruling, the day after the ICJ ruling, accusing Israel of plausible genocide, and the headlines were — we all saw them — that the Israelis leaked this.

So, what I would say is the news management is unraveling. It’s been exposed. And what we’re now seeing is the spotlight turning to the donors. And I would like to see some proper investigation into the frameworks that are there for the donors who are accusing UNRWA of politicization. I would like to say: What are the donors doing, in a way which is accountable and which is transparent, to show to the world how they ring-fenced their humanitarian decision-making process and to keep it immune from politics? Because they’re accusing UNRWA of politicizing, weaponizing. You know, there’s all this accusations around UNRWA’s neutrality. What about the donor neutrality? Because it looks increasingly as if the donor community, based on a very dodgy dossier, was doing Israel’s political bidding. We heard Mr. Netanyahu — we’ve heard him say several times that he would like to see UNRWA destroyed, dismantled. And it looks horribly — and I say this with deep regret — that the donors are, on the face of it, going along with that Israeli scheme to dismantle UNRWA, which is why I say they can reverse that.

They can reverse that this moment, by coming back and saying, “It was a dodgy dossier. We don’t have the facts.” They’re now openly saying they don’t have the facts. They need to come back and acknowledge what is actually happening. It was a piece of news management. Treachery happens in wars. It happens. You know, that’s what goes on: misinformation, lies. The truth is the first casualty of war. All of that. That’s what’s happened here. The truth appears to have been the first casualty.

The donors have made this precipitous, regrettable, I would say, illegal and disproportionate decision to defund UNRWA. That can be reversed immediately by the donors coming back. And I would urge them to do this, because, you know, judge UNRWA by its response. Just as I say judge the IDF — I say to American audiences, judge the IDF by its response to these Abu Ghraib pictures, judge UNRWA by its response. Commissioner-General Lazzarini has been swift and resolute as part of a zero-tolerance policy, which, by the way, has worked throughout the region. Do you really think that 33,000 UNRWA workers could be actively doing this humanitarian, human development work across the region if it weren’t implementing policies which were absolutely impartial? There’s no question that UNRWA would very quickly lose the trust of the communities and the donors if they weren’t implementing this zero-tolerance policy. And that has to be recognized. It’s the response of UNRWA that donors need to respond to, not a few bad apples who we don’t even know.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Chris Gunness, I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRIS GUNNESS: My pleasure.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Chris Gunness, the former spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA. He’s now the director of the Myanmar Accountability Project.

When we come back, Senegal is in the midst of its worst political upheaval in decades after the president postponed this month’s election. We’ll get the latest. Stay with us.

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