Palestinians displaced by Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip set up a tent in Rafah, Dec. 6, 2023. (Photo: AP)
UN human rights experts on Friday expressed grave concern at the recent harmful decision by some 18 states to suspend funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Australia, Austria, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all announced suspension of funding for UNRWA, the experts said.
“These announcements come at an existential moment for over two million Palestinians in Gaza enduring catastrophic living conditions due to Israel’s large-scale military attack that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) considers a plausible genocide,” the experts said.
The decision follows Israel’s allegations against several UNRWA employees of involvement in the Hamas-led attacks on 7 October 2023.
The experts said: “In response to these allegations, and even before conducting its due process investigation, UNRWA announced its decision to terminate these employees’ contracts ‘in the interest of the agency.’ This response reflects UNRWA’s firm commitment to ensuring organisational neutrality, in line with UN principles and values rejecting incitement and all forms of violence.”
“Even if allegations against individuals are proven, based on an impartial and independent investigation, UNRWA as a whole, traditionally providing services to 1.7 million Palestinian refugees and offering employment to 13,000 locally recruited staff in Gaza, must not be blamed and punished collectively,” the experts said.
They were dismayed by reports suggesting Israel intends to “remove” UNRWA from Gaza. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms any efforts to delegitimise UNRWA as a whole.”
Founded in 1949, UNRWA is the largest UN agency in Gaza and the primary provider of life-saving services and support to millions of Palestinians in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, including food assistance, shelter, healthcare, education, water, sanitation and hygiene.
Approximately 1.7 million people displaced across Gaza—some multiple times, injured and highly traumatised—are currently seeking shelter in or near the vicinity of UNRWA facilities and receiving assistance from the Agency—roughly half of them children.
“We recognise UNRWA’s determination to implement its humanitarian mandate under unprecedented and enormous risks,” the experts said. “More than 150 UNRWA staff have been killed in Israeli bombardments since 7 October 2023—the highest number of UN staff killed in any conflict since the UN was founded in 1945.”
“Multiple UNRWA facilities have been targeted, besieged and demolished by the Israeli military, in apparent violation of the principle of the inviolability of UN premises,” they said.
The experts request states to rally around the Agency and urge UNRWA’s leading donors to maintain their support, especially in anticipation of the complex humanitarian challenges ahead.
“We agree with the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee that no other entity has the capacity to deliver the scale and breadth of assistance that 2.2 million people in Gaza urgently need,” the experts said.
“The grossly disproportionate decision to suspend funding by some of the largest donor states defies the basic principle of humanity, and goes against states’ commitment to leave no one behind,” they said. “Denying basic human necessities, life-saving medical care, food, shelter, and antenatal care for pregnant women, is not just indefensible—it is a hindrance to the already complex journey toward peace.”
“At this existential time for over two million people in Gaza, on the brink of famine, UN operations and facilities must be protected,” the experts said, encouraging states to support UNRWA’s mandate and protect it from interference.
With the ICJ alerting the international community to the risk of genocide in Gaza and ordering immediate and effective action to ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians, states must do more, including to avoid legal consequences for aiding and abetting, or possible complicity in acts of genocide,” they said. “Instead of castigating the agency that provides critical support for millions of Palestinians in Gaza, states must exhaust all efforts to avert serious violations of international law, including genocide—and this necessitates continued international support of UNRWA’s vital humanitarian services.”
Israel has killed more than 27,000 people in the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7. The military onslaught has caused mass displacement and destruction and created conditions for famine in Gaza.