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EU to release funds for Palestinian aid organization UNRWA

Bernd Riegert in Brussels
March 2, 2024

Following Israel's allegations against the aid organization UNRWA, many donors suspended their funding to the UN's Palestinian aid agency. The EU has said it will now resume funding, but members aren't united on Gaza.

A blue-and-white sign for the UNRWA headquarters, riddled with bullet holes
UNRWA is the international organization that provides the most aid in the besieged Gaza StripImage: Karam Hassan/Anadolu/picture alliance

Following allegations by the government of Israel that a dozen staff members of the 13,000 employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza were involved in October's attack in Israel, the European Commission suspended payments to the aid organization for one month.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas — which the European Union, Germany and other governments have designated as a terrorist organization — led attacks in Israel that resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,200 people and the taking of more than 200 hostages. In response, Israel launched an assault on the besieged enclave which has since killed more than 30,000 people and displaced about 80% of the population, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

In November, a first breakthrough deal between Israel and Hamas saw the release of about 110 hostages. Talks are currently ongoing for a new cease-fire and the release of the remaining hostages.

EU releases partial funds

Starting next week, the EU expects to resume payments to UNRWA, with one tranche of €50 million ($54 million), followed by another €32 million split into two installments later in the year.

This comes after long negotiations, in which UNRWA had agreed to EU conditions. The United Nations has launched an internal investigation into the affair, and the EU is conducting an independent probe with its own experts. 

In an exchange of correspondence with the EU, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini assured the European Commission that his organization was not involved in the October 7 attacks in Israel, and that all of his 13,000 staff members working in the besieged Gaza Strip were being reviewed. 

In a February meeting with EU foreign ministers, Lazzarini said Israeli officials had yet to provide any evidence for the accusations leveled against the relief organization. A UN spokesperson also said they were still waiting for Israel to provide records or other intelligence.

Given the ongoing assault by Israeli forces in Gaza, EU foreign ministers recognized that UNRWA was essential to providing at least basic relief to the beleaguered population.

EU boosting humanitarian aid through partners

The European Commission has also announced it will pledge an additional €68 million in emergency support for Palestinians in Gaza, to be paid through international aid organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

These funds will be in addition to the €125 million already allotted for this year. That would bring the total sum of humanitarian aid for Palestinians, whether through UNRWA or through other international organizations, to €275 million.

"We stand by the Palestinian people in Gaza and elsewhere in the region," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. "Innocent Palestinians should not have to pay the price for the crimes of terrorist group Hamas. They face terrible conditions putting their lives at risk because of lack of access to sufficient food and other basic needs."

The EU is the third-largest donor to UNRWA after the US and Germany. In January, the two leading donors also halted their funding, leaving the relief organization to an uncertain future. Should the US and Germany continue to withhold payments, UNRWA could still be forced to suspend its work soon.  

No unified EU response

The bloc's 27 member states haven't been united in their assessment of the situation in Gaza. While Germany has called the humanitarian situation "disastrous" and is looking to increase humanitarian assistance to people in the Palestinian territories, it has been reserved about criticizing Israel's actions. Berlin has insisted Israel has the right to defend itself, and that Israel's military operation against Hamas is necessary.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced Germany was increasing humanitarian assistance for Gaza. She also joined the UN's call for a "humanitarian pause" to ensure more aid could reach civilians and to secure the release of the remaining hostages.

A woman holds a sign during a protest rally against the war in Gaza calling for a ceasefire
Criticism has been mounting over the Israeli government's military campaign in GazaImage: Jamal Awad/picture alliance/Xinhua News Agency

Other EU member states, such as Spain and Ireland, have been critical of Israel's military campaign. In a joint letter to the European Commission, the countries' prime ministers demanded a review of the EU-Israel association agreement and asked the Commission to "act urgently" to review whether Israel was complying with human rights standards in Gaza.

Eric Mamer, a speaker for the European Commission in Brussels, said his office was looking into the request. The European Commission declined to respond to the incident where over 100 Palestinians were killed on Thursday as they were trying to reach an aid convoy.

Gazan health officials reported scores of victims delivered to hospitals with gunshot wounds. Israeli officials said most were killed in a stampede.

Gaza aid convoy incident leaves scores dead

Von der Leyen has called for an independent international investigation.

"We cannot determine what has happened, we are not attributing blame or responsibility," said Mamer. "We have to find out was has happened."

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union