Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said he “would be very concerned” about the future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees following the decision of nine countries to withdraw funding from the programme.
The move by other countries to pull funding from UNRWA follows allegations that some agency staff were involved in the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel.
UN officials implored countries to reconsider a pause in funding vowing that any staff found to be involved in the Hamas attack would be punished and warning that aid for some two million people in Gaza was at stake.
Mr Martin said that those countries acted “prematurely” and that an entire population should not be punished because of the actions of some workers.
Asked if he would be concerned that UNRWA could collapse because of a cut in funding, the Mr Martin replied: “I would be very concerned. I think the countries acted far too prematurely, I think Philippe Lazzarini [UNWRA commissioner-general] a very reputable and solid administrator.
“I met with him in respect of the future of UNRWA some months ago. Ireland is a strong contributor to UNRWA.
“The bottom line is that without UNRWA, humanitarian situation would become even more catastrophic in Gaza and in the West Bank and don’t forget that UNRWA also supports millions of refugees in Jordan and elsewhere, so it’s a hugely important agency employing 30,000 people, 13,000 alone in Gaza so that’s the context and people have to put that in perspective in terms of the allegations against a number of workers on the ground.
“To pull out an entire programme would, I think, be catastrophic in terms of the daily humanitarian needs of Gazans in particular, in the midst of a most terrible conflict.”
Speaking in Cork at Fianna Fáil’s selection convention for the European Parliament South constituency, Mr Martin said: “The most pressing need in Gaza is to end the conflict. We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
“It is terrible what is going on, huge numbers of children losing their lives, innocent civilians, it is not tenable or sustainable any longer.
“There will always be a focus and I’ve no issue and Philippe Lazzarini has no issue in terms of ensuring that UNWRA adheres to the rules and standards and makes sure that no members or workers engage in any heinous crimes such as the appalling, shocking inhumane attack on October 7 by Hamas.
“That doesn’t mean you collectively punish the entire population by withdrawing all the funding that UNWRA needs for education, for health services, for food.”
He said that, in relation to Ireland potentially joining the South African case against Israel at the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention, he has asked his legal team to examine the situation and come back with a report.
“South Africa will have to file a case and we will have to see that case obviously, in order to intervene one has to have legal reasons, we can develop some of our own but we’d also have to see what other arguments are being put forward in the context of the Genocide Convention,” Mr Martin said.
He added talking to other countries is “an important part” of the process and that there will be engagement with “like-minded countries” on this.
Calls to reconsider decision
UNWRA’s Director of Communication’s Juliette Touma said the organisation has asked the United Nations most senior body to undertake the investigation and look into these “very serious allegations”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, she also said that UNWRA is unable to provide any further details while the investigation is ongoing.
Asked if UNRWA can survive without funding from the US, Ms Touma said it is going to be very difficult to survive without the “very generous funds” that they get from the US government.
“UNRWA has had a previous experience where the US had cut completely its funding to the agency under President Trump’s administration and the agency really struggled for a good few years financially,” she said.
“Other donors have stepped in, but it’s not the same and so we also call on the United States and other countries to reconsider this decision also because of the situation in Gaza and the immense humanitarian needs.”
Ms Touma said there should be accountability and that is why the investigation is under way and if the allegations prove to be true, those people will be held accountable.