UK pauses funding for UN Palestinian refugee agency over October 7 allegations

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen explains how a number of UNRWA staff members were sacked amid claims of being involved in the October 7 attack by Hamas

The UK has paused funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which has fired a number of staffers accused of taking part in the October 7 attack. Canada, the US and Australia have also temporarily halted funding for UNRWA while an investigation is carried out. Ireland has no plans to suspend funding, the country’s deputy premier has said.UNRWA has been the main agency providing aid for people in the Gaza Strip facing a humanitarian disaster caused by Israel’s offensive against Hamas.

Its chief, Philippe Lazzarini, said it terminated contracts with “several” employees and ordered an investigation after Israel provided information alleging they played a role in the attack.

The US State Department said there were allegations against 12 employees. UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza, almost all of them Palestinians, ranging from teachers in schools that the agency runs to doctors, medical staff and aid workers.

Trucks with humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip enter from Egypt's Rafah border crossing. Credit: Fatima Shbair/AP

In a statement, the British Foreign Office said: “The UK is appalled by allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attack against Israel, a heinous act of terrorism that the UK Government has repeatedly condemned. "The UK is temporarily pausing any future funding of UNRWA whilst we review these concerning allegations. We remain committed to getting humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza who desperately need it."

In a statement, Mr Lazzarini called the allegations “shocking” and said any employee “involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

He did not elaborate on what the staffers’ alleged role was in the unprecedented surprise attacks, which saw 1,200 people killed and 250 kidnapped – prompting Israel's current offensive in Gaza. “UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks of 7 October” and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages," Mr Lazzarini added.

The US State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations and has temporarily paused additional funding for the agency. The US is its biggest donor, providing it with $340 million (around £267.5 million) in 2022, and several hundred million in 2023.

It welcomed the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA and said it has "reached out to the government of Israel to seek more information about these allegations".

On Friday Canada's international development minister Ahmed Hussen said Ottawa had "temporarily paused any additional funding to UNRWA while it undertakes a thorough investigation into these allegations".

He said that Canada "will not reduce its support for the people of Gaza" and would "work with other partners to provide life-saving assistance" to civilians in the Palestinian enclave.

On Saturday Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said allegations about UNRWA staff involvement in October 7 were "deeply concerning".

She said: "We are speaking with partners and will temporarily pause disbursement of recent funding. We welcome UNRWA's immediate response, including terminating contracts and launching an investigation, as well as its recent announcement of a full investigation into allegations against the organisation."

The UK's former immigration minister Robert Jenrick suggested Britain should follow suit in pausing support to UNRWA "whilst these serious allegations are investigated".

He said: "It’s an organisation staffed by many well meaning people, working in the most challenging circumstances, but whose leadership has fallen into a moral morass of complicity with Hamas, forever turning a blind eye to the terrorists."

Since the start of the war, more than 26,000 Palestinians, most women and children, have been killed, while 64,400 others have been wounded, Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Friday.

The ministry does not differentiate between combatants and civilians in its death toll. More than 150 UNRWA employees are among those killed — the highest toll the world body has suffered in a conflict — and a number of UN shelters have been hit in the bombardment.

More than 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes by the war — with hundreds of thousands of them crowded into schools and other shelters run by UNRWA.

Israel’s near-complete seal on Gaza has left almost the entire population reliant on a trickle of international aid able to enter the territory each day. UN officials say about a quarter of the population now faces starvation.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said an “urgent and comprehensive” independent review of UNRWA would be conducted in light of the latest claims. UNRWA was created to care for millions of Palestinians across the Middle East whose families fled or were forced from properties inside what is Israel during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Israel rejects a return of the refugees to their former lands. 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, Mr 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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