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Paul Vallely: UK’s double standards in Middle East

02 February 2024

Why was it so quick to cut aid to the UNRWA, asks Paul Vallely

Alamy

A UNRWA lorry at the Rafah border crossing

A UNRWA lorry at the Rafah border crossing

IT’S HARD to work out the real policy of the British Government towards Israel and Gaza. It is now talking about accelerating our formal recognition of a Palestinian state. Only days before, it was cutting off funding to the UN agency that facilitates the paltry supply of aid which trickles through to Gaza. One minute, it is calling for military de-escalation in the region, the next, it is bombing the Palestinians’ Houthi allies, widening the crisis in this Middle Eastern tinderbox.

Over the weekend, the UK suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose 13,000 Gazan staff deliver food aid, medicine, and education to almost two million Palestinians who have been displaced from their homes by Israeli bombing. The move came after Israel provided the United States with a dossier alleging that 12 UNRWA members of staff were involved in the 7 October terrorist attacks.

The UNRWA swiftly fired nine men (two are dead and the other is missing) and launched an investigation. But that was not enough to stop the UK from withholding funding. This was an extraordinarily precipitate response. Israel has not made public its evidence. The dossier is just six pages long. It was passed to Washington on the very day that the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take action to prevent genocide by its forces in Gaza and to allow more aid into the territory.

Amnesty and Christian Aid condemned the withdrawal of aid as “cruel” and a “collective punishment”. Penalising a million refugees for the crimes of 12 individuals, said Chris Gunness, the UNRWA’s former director of communications, was “like cutting funding to the NHS because of the actions of Lucy Letby”.

In response, Israel leaked to The New York Times that “nearly 200 UNRWA workers are Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives”. It then told The Wall Street Journal that the figure was nearer 1200. Again, Israel provided no evidence.

It is hard not to detect in all this a co-ordinated political and economic attack on the UNRWA, the body that distributes food and provides temporary shelter in its schools, in Gaza. Since 1949, it has been charged with the care of 5.9 million Palestinians displaced from their homes — in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria — by the foundation of the State of Israel.

Hardline Israelis have long seen the UNRWA as an obstacle to resolving the Palestinian problem. They argue that its very existence prevents refugees from integrating into their host communities. It fuels Palestinian dreams of one day returning to Israel, in such numbers that they would change the country’s Jewish character.

Recent claims that the UNRWA is a front for Hamas should be seen against the backdrop of decades of hostility. “We cannot win this war without dismantling UNRWA,” said a former Israel foreign ministry official, Noga Arbell, recently. Since October, Israel has killed 152 UNRWA workers and destroyed 141 of its compounds.

The UK’s double standards, in the light of all this, are perplexing. Action against the body assisting so many innocent civilians is swift — although the evidence, such as it is, is massively disproportionate. Meanwhile, uncritical support for the government inflicting this devastation continues unabated. Our moral compass is in need of serious reorientation.

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