Australia pauses $6 million in aid funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Palestine

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Australia is among several countries pausing aid funding for a UN group supporting Palestinians in Gaza after allegations some of its staff may have been involved in the October 7 attack on Israel.

Workers at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary aid source of aid in Gaza, have been accused of aiding the attack, where Hamas kidnapped hundreds of Israelis and massacred 1,200 people.

Penny Wong described the allegations as “deeply concerning”.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said the organisation had terminated the contracts of “several” employees and ordered an investigation after Israel provided it with information alleging 12 of its staff were involved in Hamas’ October 7 attack.

Ms Wong announced Australia would commit $6 million in funding to UNRWA as part of an additional $22 million humanitarian assistance package on her first visit to the Middle East earlier this month.

The United States, Canada, Britain, Finland and Italy have also temporarily halted funding to the agency following the shocking claims.

The UNRWA is the main agency providing food, shelter and emergency healthcare in Gaza, with more than 1.4 million Palestinians currently sheltering in its facilities.

Ms Wong said: “Australia will engage closely with UNRWA on investigations and is consulting with international partners.”

“While we do this, we will temporarily pause disbursement of recently announced funding.”

In a statement, Mr Lazzarini said: “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

He did not elaborate on the role it is alleged the staffers played in the attack.

“These shocking allegations come as more than two million people in Gaza depend on lifesaving assistance that the Agency has been providing since the war began.”

“Anyone who betrays the fundamental values of the United Nations also betrays those whom we serve in Gaza, across the region and elsewhere around the world.”

The decision to pause funding has been criticised by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh.

On X he wrote: “We call on the countries that announced the cessation of their support for #UNRWA to immediately reverse their decision, which entails great political and humanitarian relief risks”.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is worsening daily with more than 1.9 million of its 2.2 million population displaced by the confilct with Israel, according to United Nations figures.

The US State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations.

“Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on January 25 to emphasise the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter,” a statement said.

The US is the agency’s biggest donor, providing it with US$340 million (A$517 million) in 2022 and several hundred million in 2023.

The UNRWA employs around 13,000 Palestinians in Gaza, ranging from school teachers to doctors, medical staff and aid workers.

– with AP