UNRWA funding freezes risk 'aiding' deaths in Gaza: Saudi official

AFP , Ahram Online , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Freezing funds to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees risk "aiding" the deaths of civilians in Gaza, the head of Saudi Arabia's humanitarian agency told AFP on Tuesday.

File Photo: Palestinians receive bags of flour at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP


Several countries -- including the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan -- have suspended funding to the UNRWA agency in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff members participated in the October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood operation by Hamas militants

However, various donor countries and international humanitarian organizations have condemned the funding freeze, with some charging that Western powers are becoming complicit in starving 2.3 million Palestinians who have been under an Israeli blockade on the strip for more than four months.

"We should not penalize the innocent people, millions of people who are living in Gaza, because of an accusation on a handful of people," Dr Abdullah al-Rabeeah, head of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, told AFP in an interview on Tuesday.

"If you have close to two million people living in a small place... and then the funding for the food and the health basics is stopped, basically you are calling for them to live in, actually, disaster and also aiding in their death."

Rabeeah, who is also an adviser to the Saudi Royal Court, spoke as Gaza braced for an expected Israeli incursion into the crowded southern city of Rafah where more than a million Palestinians are trapped.

He warned that such an operation would produce "chaos" and potentially trigger the "complete stoppage" of aid trucks.

"We will see thousands of people losing their lives. Now people talk about the threat of epidemics, the threat of famine, and you name it. So we don't want to see any civilian get lost because of things that can be avoided," he said.

Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, has never recognized Israel, though officials were considering doing so before the start of the Israeli aggression on Gaza.

While US President Joe Biden's administration has voiced optimism that Saudi-Israeli normalization can be revived, Saudi Arabia said last week it had told Washington it would not establish ties with Israel until an independent Palestinian state is "recognized", and Israeli forces leave Gaza.

CIA Director William Burns was in Cairo Tuesday for a new round of talks on a Qatari-brokered ceasefire proposal that would temporarily halt fighting in exchange for Hamas freeing captives.

Rabeeah said any deal should allow humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza "without any obstacles".

Saudi Arabia has sent 384 aid trucks and 20 ambulances into Gaza, he said, though he noted that an even greater amount of aid was stuck in Egypt, unable to cross into Gaza because of cumbersome regulations.

"We have newborn incubators -- this was not allowed to enter Gaza. So as a doctor, how would you imagine a newborn will survive if you deny him the basic need of an incubator?" he said.

"Some of the X-ray machines will not be allowed... How can you diagnose a patient without diagnostic tools?"

Altogether the Saudi agency has sent 5,795 tonnes of aid to support Gaza.

Rabeeah said that while reconstruction in Gaza still seemed far off, he hoped Saudi volunteers would participate directly if safety conditions permit.

"We hope to see our health workers helping the people of Gaza as much as they would be able also to help the people of Ukraine and other parts of the world," he said.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the top donors globally, and we will be one of those who will be active and in the front line when it comes to rebuilding Gaza."

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