Britain pausing UNRWA funding but not cutting it, minister tells MPs

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Britain pausing UNRWA funding but not cutting it, minister tells MPs

In response to evidence staff at UN agency were involved in Hamas' October attacks Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell clarifies the UK's position

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell
Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell has told MPs the UK is “pausing funding” but not”cutting funding”to the largest UN agency operating in Gaza.

He made the clarification in the Commons in response to the deepening crisis over evidence that up to 12 staff employed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) were involved in the 7 October Hamas massacre in Israel.

During the latest statement on Israel and the war in Gaza, Mitchell said:”We are not cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), we are pausing funding.”

After the Foreign Office confirmed the UK was joining several other nations in pausing funding to the agency over evidence in an Israeli intelligence report that up to 12 UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7th massacre.

Responding to concerns raised Tory MP Tobias Ellwood that cutting funding for the UNRWA could worsen the humanitarian situation and see more Gazans join Hamas, Mitchell told the Commons on Monday:”While we have zero tolerance of these dreadful things that are alleged to have been done, we cannot operate at zero risks and the politics of logistics and distribution are a nightmare, as he knows, in Gaza.

“So we will look very carefully at these reports, we will suspend any future funding until we have them, but we recognise that the UNRWA assets are essential to delivering in Gaza.”

A flag map of the Middle East inside an UNRWA-produced textbook shows a blank space on Israel’s territory. (IMPACT-se via JTA)

He told MPs that the next payment of funds to the agency was not due until the next calendar year, so there was no need to cut money, unless the on-going investigation by the government  into the allegations concluded there was a need to do so.

Earlier Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman had confirmed: “There is a pause in place and we are conducting an investigation.“Obviously we are in contact with our Israeli counterparts and UNRWA as well.

“My understanding is that we have committed £16 million to UNRWA following the Hamas terror attacks, but this was dispersed before the allegations came to light.

“I’m not aware of any remaining UNRWA funding that hasn’t been used. In the meantime, we’re working with a number of other partner organisations, so Unicef, the Red Cross, and others, to deliver our uplift of aid into Gaza.”

Meanwhile, Mitchell also responded to the International Court of Justice interim judgement on South Africa’s case against Israel in The Hague.Mitchell  said “we do not believe Israel’s actions in Gaza can be described as a genocide.”

He told the Commons: “We had considerable concerns about South Africa’s decision to bring this case. Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas. And we do not believe Israel’s actions in Gaza can be described as a genocide.

“Of course, we respect the role and independence of the ICJ (International Court of Justice).”

He said the court’s call for increased aid and to ensure basic services, for Israel to preserve evidence relating to allegations of genocide, for hostages to be released, and the need to follow international law are “points we have been pressing consistently.”

He added: “We have said (Israel) must take greater care to avoid harming civilians and civilian infrastructure”.

David Lammy MP speaks at Labour Equalities event in Southwark

Labour shadow foreign secretary David Lammy asked: “Does the Government accept the court’s authority or not? Does it believe the ruling should be implemented in full, or not?.”

Mitchell said: “We welcome the court’s call for the immediate release of hostages and the need to get more aid into Gaza. We are clear that an immediate pause is necessary to get the aid in and the hostages out.”

“He added: “We regularly call on Israel to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law and we will continue to do so.”

Michael Ellis

In another intervention ex-attorney general and former minister Sir Michael Ellis questioned if travel advice to South Africa should be changed to protect Jews, but did not receive a direct response from the minister.

The Northampton North MP said: “Is my right honourable friend concerned about the safety of Jews in South Africa in these circumstances and will he consider changing Foreign Office advice about travel to South Africa?”

Mitchell was also asked to respond to claims the government had given out “mixed messages” in its response to the ICJ ruling, in a statement not signed by foreign secretary Lord Cameron.

The minister praised the work of Cameron in the region, and later claimed he was able to ask tough questions of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.During the debate a succession of MPs, including Labour’s Zarah Sultana, Richard Burgon and Apsana Begum, and SNP representatives in Westminster called for a ban on arms sales to Israel in response to the ICJ interim report.

Mitchell also responded angrily to repeated attempts to link Israel with claims it was committing genocide in Gaza.

Meanwhile the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee raised “grave concerns” about a compound being bombed in Gaza by F16 Israeli jets on January 18th.

The incident left four UK medics injured despite claims Israel had been informed by UK defence channels of the location and nature of the compound, and accepted it was a destination for aid for charities including Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Mitchell said the bombing was an “extremely serious matter” raised at the “highest level” by Lord Cameron in Israel last week, and by the UK ambassador there.

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