Egypt’s FM says charges against UNRWA 'highly charged in connotation'

Ahram Online , Sunday 28 Jan 2024

Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry stated that recent allegations against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were “highly charged in its connotations.”

File Photo: Egypt s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. AFP


The same language has not been employed in discussing the deaths of over 26,000 Palestinians in Gaza, the majority of whom were children and women, since the war broke out on 7 October, Shoukry added. 

“This, in itself, is astonishing.”

Shoukry's remarks came at a press conference with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan after presiding over a meeting of the follow-up and political consultations committee at the ministerial level on Sunday.

Israel has recently alleged several UNRWA staff were involved in Hamas's attack on 7 October, leading several key donor countries to suspend their funding.

As a result, the UN agency has fired several staff over Israel's accusations, promising a thorough investigation into the claims, which were not specified, with Israel vowing to stop the agency's work in Gaza after the war.

The Egyptian minister indicated that the UN agency has around 30,000 employees and a small number of its employees may have behaved inappropriately, adding that it will be seen whether these allegations are proven.

However, Shoukry affirmed that individual misconduct should not result in holding the entire agency responsible, stating that the “unjustified scapegoating” should be avoided.

He noted that the timing of these accusations and the campaign against the UNRWA are part of the collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza.

“There must be an investigation into the allegations, not a pre-emptive condemnation,” Shoukry said, adding that the UNRWA has taken the proper measures to investigate the allegations.

“This agency is responsible for civilians and provides services in Gaza under extremely challenging conditions. One hundred and twenty of the UNRWA’s employees have lost their lives while delivering essential services that have no alternative providers,” Shoukry said.

Established in 1949, the UNRWA is the largest UN agency operating in Gaza, offering healthcare, education, and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Amid Israel's offensive in response to the 7 October attacks, the UNRWA has utilized its facilities throughout Gaza to provide refuge for hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians.

The minister expressed Egypt's appreciation for UNRWA and its actions, as well as for the leadership of UNRWA and the responsibilities it undertakes.

Shoukry also commended the agency for its neutrality, commitment, and readiness to take appropriate measures to address any deviation from the framework within which it operates and any individual transgressions.

In a phone call with the UNRWA’s commissioner-general, Philippe Lazzarini, later on in the day, Shoukry stressed Egypt’s full solidarity with UNRWA in light of Israel’s allegations against the agency, saying Egypt will provide all aspects of support to the UN body to ensure its continued provision of vital services to the Palestinians.

“Attempts to target UNRWA amid these hard times and limit its ability to carry out its tasks in Gaza exacerbate the dangerous effects of the policy of siege, starvation and collective punishment imposed by Israel on the Palestinians,” said Shoukry.

Shoukry said the agency – within the UN mandate – plays a “pivotal” role in providing basic services to Palestinian refugees and is currently exerting an “indispensable” and considerable effort to provide shelter and humanitarian aid to the Gazans amid the current humanitarian situation in the Strip.

Egypt’s top diplomat expressed dissatisfaction with the countries that suspended their funding for the agency’s activities at this critical time due to “allegations that are still subject to a transparent internal investigation and review process” by the agency.

This appears to be “collective punishment against all of the agency’s workers, who number about 30,000, and the children of the Palestinian people,” he noted.

The UNRWA’s commissioner-general regretted that some donors suspended funding amid the current humanitarian crisis endured by the Palestinians in Gaza.

He also expressed his deep appreciation for the “important and vital” role that Egypt plays in providing aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip

Nine countries suspend UNRWA’s funding

Nine countries suspended funding the UNRWA in light of the Israeli accusation, including the United States, Australia, Canada, the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland.

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general, said on Saturday that these decisions threaten the UNRWA’s ongoing humanitarian work across the region, especially in the Gaza Strip.   

“It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation. The United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the highest investigative authority in the UN system, has already been seized of this very serious matter,” Lazzarini said.

The UNRWA’s top ten donors in 2022 were the US, Germany, the EU, Sweden, Norway, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Turkey, according to the UNNRWA website. During the same year, 44.3 percent of the UNRWA’s total pledges of $1.17 billion came from EU member states, who contributed $520.3 million, including through the European Commission.

On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pleaded for donor states to "guarantee the continuity" of funding to the Palestinian refugee agency.

Tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized, Guterres added.

"The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met."

Guterres confirmed that 12 UNRWA employees were cited in the accusations, which the UN is investigating.

“Nine have been fired, one is dead, and "the identity of the two others is being clarified," Guterres said.

The row between Israel and UNRWA follows the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on Friday that Israel must prevent possible acts of genocide in the war and allow more aid into Gaza.

Meanwhile, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories, issued a warning on Sunday, stating that countries cutting funding to the UNRWA were violating a court order mandating the provision of effective aid in Gaza and might be infringing on the international genocide convention.

Albanese cautioned that the decision to suspend funding for UNRWA “overtly defies” the ICJ’s directive to address the “adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in Gaza.”

"This will entail legal responsibilities - or the demise of the int'l [international] legal system," she expressed on X, formerly known as Twitter.



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