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Japan, Austria suspend UNRWA funding, but Norway continues

Japan, Austria suspend UNRWA funding, but Norway continues support for Gaza
4 min read
29 January, 2024
Japan and Austria have now halted funds to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, following allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in 7 October.
Japan and Norway have joined several countries in pausing funding to the UNRWA [Getty]

Austria and Japan are the latest countries to suspend payments to the United Nations' Palestinian aid agency, UNRWA, pending investigations into claims that its employees were involved in the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel. 

At least nine other countries, which account for about 60 percent of UNRWA's funding altogether, have paused funding.  

Austria and Japan joined the UK, US, Germany, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, in halting funding to the aid agency, a critical source of support for people in Gaza. 

"We call on UNRWA and the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive, swift, and complete investigation into the allegations," the Austrian foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday.  

Israeli officials have outwardly shared their plan to destroy UNRWA and cease services to millions of Palestinian refugees. 

Just 12 UNRWA staff members out of around 13,000 workers have been accused of complicity in the attacks, which killed around 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government.

While aid agencies have warned of apocalyptic conditions in Gaza, which has been subject to siege and nearly four months of Israeli bombing, saying famine and mass outbreaks of disease are close, this has not prevented several Western countries from suspending their support for UNRWA.

Japan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maki Kobayashi released a statement on Sunday saying that additional aid to the UNRWA will be halted "for the time being" while it investigates the allegations.

Kobayashi said Japan was "extremely concerned" about the allegations of UNRWA staff members in the "terror attack", and urged the UN agency to investigate the case and implement necessary measures so that it can "firmly fulfil the role it should play".

This comes after Philippe Lazzarini, UN refugee agency chief, urged several countries on Saturday to reverse course, stating that such "decisions threaten our ongoing humanitarian work across the region including and especially in the Gaza Strip". 

Norway has welcomed the investigation into the UN agency, but also said it would continue supporting Palestinians through the agency.

It added that the agency has played an instrumental role in distributing aid and protecting lives as well as basic needs and rights. 

"Norway continues our support for the Palestinian people through UNRWA. International support for Palestine is needed now more than ever," Norway's Representative Office to Palestine wrote on X, about the UN agency. 

"We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.”   

Arab countries and the Arab League have since denounced the suspension of funding to the UNRWA, a lifeline for millions of Palestinian refugees.

Referring to the decision as the "collective punishment" of Palestinians, Arab League (AL) Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said: "This campaign is not new, and the desire to liquidate the work of the agency that serves millions of Palestinian refugees has been repeated in different forms over the past years."

In a statement, the AL chief said that key funders had halted their contributions to the agency "at this dangerous stage", claiming there was a Western-led campaign against the UNRWA aiming "to push the international community to abandon its responsibilities in providing relief to the Palestinian refugees".

Egypt has continued to be an outspoken voice in the decision to halt UNRWA funding, as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, criticised the latest move on Sunday.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan also condemned Western countries for not sufficiently addressing the indiscriminate killing of over 26,000 innocent civilians in Gaza, mostly women and children. 

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Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed in a phone call on the importance of allowing humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip on Monday. 

"The chancellor and the president agreed that in the conflict between Israel and Hamas there is an urgent need to significantly improve access for humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and the provision of supplies to the Palestinians," a German government spokesperson said in a statement. 

Since Israel launched its war following the 7 October attacks, around a million Gazans, or nearly 45 percent of the enclave's population, have been sheltering in UNRWA schools, clinics, and other public buildings. 

Nearly the entire Gazan population now relies on UNRWA for basic needs such as food, water and hygiene supplies. 

More than 150 UNRWA staff have been killed since the start of the conflict, making it the deadliest conflict ever for UN employees.