Defunding UNRWA will cause Gazans ‘more misery and suffering’, warns former PM Clark

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UNRWA under attack
UNRWA under attack . . . Palestinian relief workers on the job in Gaza. Image: AJ screenshot APR

Asia Pacific Report

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who led the UN Development Programme which oversees UNRWA, told RNZ Morning Report today it was the biggest platform for getting humanitarian aid into Gaza for a population that is 85 percent displaced.

People are on the verge on starvation and going without medical supplies, she says.

“If you’re going to defund and destroy this platform, then the misery and suffering of the people under bombardment can only increase and you can only have more deaths.”

Former NZ prime minister Helen Clark
Former NZ prime minister Helen Clark tells Morning Report why humanitarian funding should continue. Image: RNZ screenshot

Clark said it was “most regrettable that countries have acted in this precipitous way to defund the organisation on the basis of allegations”.

Al Jazeera reports that top Palestinian officials and Hamas have criticised the decision by nearly a dozen Western countries led by the US to suspend funding (totalling more than US$667 million) for UNRWA — the UN relief agency for Palestinians — and called for an immediate reversal of the move, which entails “great” risk.

Ireland, Norway, Spain, the European Union and others (with funding totalling more than $497 million) have confirmed continued support for UNRWA, saying the agency does crucial work to help Palestinians displaced and in desperate need of assistance in Gaza.

The Norwegian aid agency said the people of Gaza would “starve in the streets” without UNRWA humanitarian assistance.

Hamas’ media office said in a post on Telegram: “We ask the UN and the international organisations to not cave into the threats and blackmail” from Israel.

Defunding ‘not right decision’
Former PM Clark did not deny the allegations made were serious, but said defunding the agency without knowing the outcome of the investigation was not the right decision, RNZ reports.

“I led an organisation that had tens of thousands of people on contracts at any one time. Could I say, hand on heart, people never did anything wrong? No I couldn’t. But what I could say was that any allegations would be fully investigated and results made publicly known,” she said.


UNRWA funding cuts — why Israel is trying to destroy the UN Palestinian aid agency.  Video: Al Jazeera

“That’s exactly what the head of UNRWA has said, it’s what the Secretary-General’s saying, that process is underway, but this is not a time to be just cutting off the funding because a small minority of UNRWA staff face allegations.”

Luxon suggested Clark’s plea would not affect New Zealand’s response.

“I appreciate that, but we’re the government, and they’re serious allegations, they need to be understood and investigated and when the foreign minister [Winston Peters] says that he’s done that and he’s happy for us to contribute and continue to contribute, we’ll do that.”

He compared the funding of about $1 million each year (in June) with the $10 million in humanitarian assistance provided by the government for the relief effort — “and we’ve split that money between the International Red Cross and also the World Food Programme”.

Clark said people could starve to death or die because they did not receive the medication they needed in the meantime.

If major donor countries like the United States and Germany continued to withhold funding, UNRWA would go down and there was no alternative, she said.

Clark did not believe there was any coincidence in the allegations being made known at the same time as the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the situation in Gaza.

According to the BBC, the court ordered Israel to do everything in its power to refrain from killing and injuring Palestinians and do more to “prevent and punish” public incitement to genocide. Tel Aviv must report back to the court on its actions within a month.

Clark said the timing of the UNRWA allegations was an attempt to deflect the significant rulings made of the court and dismiss them.

“I think it’s fairly obvious what was happening.”

Israel had provided the agency with information alleging a dozen staff were involved in the October 7 attack by Hamas fighters in southern Israel, which left about 1139 dead and about 250 taken as hostages.

More than 26,000 people — mostly women and children — have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched a major military operation in response, according to the enclave’s Health Ministry.

Israel military have killed 152 UNRWA aid workers since the onslaught on Gaza began.

UNRWA was founded in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to provide hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced with education, healthcare, social services and jobs. It started operations in 1950.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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