Monday, January 29, 2024

UNWRA funding cuts hasty and reckless

The speed with which a bunch of Western countries, including Canada, have frozen funding for UNWRA - after allegations by Israel that some of its workers are indicated in the October 7th 2023 Hamas attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,200 Israelis and the taking of 240 hostages - has been mind-boggling.

UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is the UN agency doing the vast majority of the relief work in Palestine, and has been since 1948. Cutting off its funding - "pending an inquiry" - is to cut off the vast majority of the humanitarian assistance that is the only thing stopping Israel from completely wiping out the Palestinian people. Over 2 million suffering people in the besieged enclave have suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them, while Israel continues to wage its war on them.

According to Israel - and there's a big caveat, right there - 12 members of the UNWRA team on the ground are alleged to have had a hand, in some unspecified way, in the Hamas attacks. 9 of these named individuals have been summarily dismissed from the service, one has died in the conflict, and two others are awaiting more identification details.

So, 12 individuals out of the estimated 13,000 UNWRA staff (less than one tenth of a percent) are alleged - and notice the word "alleged"; I'm not sure what hard evidence, if any, has been presented -  to have done bad things. The 13,000 employees are almost all Palestinians, so the most surprising thing may be how FEW  of them are hardline Hamas supporters. And this is enough for ten major UN donors to completely cut their funding, overnight. The agency can survive for literally weeks without regular infections of funding.

To name names, the thirteen countries who have cut teir funding so far are: USA, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, UK, Italy, Australia, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Austria, and Romania, almost all of whom are in the top 20 or so donors to the agency. France and the EU are reviewing their options. Notably, Ireland, Spain, Luxembourgband Norway have said they will NOT cut funding due to the crucial work the agency does to help displaced Palestinians.

The UN and WHO have, obviously enough, strongly criticized the funding cuts, but so have many other experts in international relations and humanitarian aid, including several retired Canadian foreign service diplomats. As one pointed out, "This is pretty much the definition of collective punishment", the very thing that Israel is accused of with its continuing military overreach. It has also been pointed out that UNWRA shares its staff list with Israel every year, and has never heard any concerns about specific staff members, until now...

For a government that can take years to grind to a decision on some things, this precipitate and poorly-considered move is a shockingly fast response. Review Israel's claims by all means - and review it carefully, because I'm not sure I would trust such a convenient claim very far - but don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake. Holding humanitarian aid to ransom is not cool.


Pierre Poilievre, of course, never knowingly undersold, has vowed to cut finding to UNWRA completely if he ever gets voted in as PM, on the grounds it is a "terrorist organization". The guy doesn't really do moderation or nuance.

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