UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories said that countries that cut funding to UNRWA could be “violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention.”
The move to cut aid to the UN Palestinian refugee agency by several Western countries is a “collective punishment”, the head of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said, as the UN chief Antonio Guterres joined him in urging donor nations to uphold the essential Gaza aid.
The decision came amid unfounded accusations by Israel against some UNRWA staff members in connection with the October 7 Hamas attack.
UNRWA, a crucial lifeline for two million people in Gaza, is now facing a funding crisis from several and exclusively Western countries, amid concerns about a looming famine in the enclave.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini expressed that the move was shocking, urging them to reverse their act, especially as Gaza grapples with the aftermath of nearly four months of Israel’s genocidal war that has claimed over 26,000 lives.
“These decisions threaten our ongoing humanitarian work across the region including and especially in the Gaza Strip,” Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement.
Lazzarini called on countries to “reconsider their decisions before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response”.
Nine out of 12 staff members had their contracts terminated. One was confirmed dead and the identities of the other two were being clarified, he added.
On Friday, UNRWA reported the dismissal of several employees and initiated an investigation into Israel’s allegations against some of its staff.
“To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay,” Lazzarini said.
Following this development on Friday, the United States declared a suspension of funding to UNRWA, citing allegations against 12 employees who “may have been involved” in the Hamas attack.
Several Western countries, including the U.S., Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Scotland, also halted their financial support to the agency, whose facilities where displaced Palestinians sought refuge have been repeatedly under relentless Israeli air raids.
Ireland and Norway, however, expressed their continuous support for the refugee agency, saying UNRWA plays a crucial role in helping displaced Palestinians and ones in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.
“We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done, and what UNRWA stands for,” a statement by Norway’s government said, adding the organisation’s tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, the West Bank, and the region play a “crucial role” in giving out aid, saving lives, and protecting basic needs and rights.
“Ireland has no plans to suspend funding for UNRWA’s vital Gaza work,” Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin wrote on X.
The initial U.S. move came a day after an ICJ ruling on Friday determined that Israel must take steps to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza but fell short of ordering the regime to enact a ceasefire or stop its relentless war on Gaza, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians since October 7.
Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, said that countries that suspended funding to UNRWA could be “violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention.”
“The day after the ICJ concluded that Israel is plausibly committing Genocide in Gaza, some states decided to defund UNRWA,” Albanese said on X.
Albanese also characterised the decision made by these Western donors as “collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed Lazzarini’s plea, urging donor nations to continue supporting UNRWA, emphasising the critical role the agency plays in providing aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
Guterres assured that UN employees engaged in acts of “terror” would be held accountable but stressed that the broader UNRWA workforce should not face collective punishment.
“The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,”Guterres said.
Meanwhile, UNRWA was established to aid refugees from the 1948 war during Israel’s creation, offering educational, healthcare, and humanitarian services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighbouring countries.
The cash-strapped UNRWA today supports nearly 6 million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, as well as in neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Social media users have pointed to the fact that those accused were a small percentage in a massive staff standing to be punishing a whole population and that the allegations were unfounded.
“I consider myself to be fairly cynical. But I didn’t think that an ICJ finding that Israel is being investigated for genocide would lead to aid being cut to the victims of said genocide by our Government. It’s an utterly bleak time in history,” one user said.
“There are 30,000 UNRWA members. 0.04% of them have been accused of unspecified crimes, extracted by Israeli interrogation. If you cut funding on those grounds, you’d have to cut funding for every agency on earth,” The Guardian columnist Owen Jones said on X.
“Cutting funding for UNRWA will kill huge numbers of Palestinians,” he added.
Out of the 30,000, there were 13,000 Palestinians working for UNRWA, Jones said.
“There are allegations against 12 staff members – or 0.092% – and that’s what they are, allegations based on Israeli ‘interrogations’ of prisoners,” he added.
Human rights lawyer Francis Boyle said that with donor states cutting off funding to UNRWA, it is “no longer the case of these states aiding and abetting Israeli Genocide against the Palestinians in violation of Genocide Convention article 3 (e) criminalising ‘complicity’ in genocide”.
“These States are now also directly violating Genocide Convention article 2(c) by themselves: ‘Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part…”,” Journalist and writer Sam Hussein wrote on X.
Pointing out the double standard approach by the West that seems to always work in favour of the occupation, a social media user said: “They don’t even ask for an independent investigation or wait for the results of UNRWA’s investigation. They immediately take measures against a whole organisation that’s providing vital services to the captive & slaughtered people of Gaza, on the basis of accusations against 12.”
Famous political activist and rapper Lowkey also wrote on Saturday: “Yesterday, the ICJ made it clear that it had trust in UNRWA sources. Immediately, Israel attacked the credibility of those employed by the agency, and now both the US and UK have cut funding to it.”
“This is a very transparent attempt to divert attention away from the ICJ rulings and what that means for Israel, US et al. Without substantiation, anything coming from countries accused of carrying out genocide is propaganda. Plain and simple,” Sana Saeed, host and senior producer at AJ+ said.