Withdrawal of funding for UNRWA could be ‘catastrophic’, warns Martin

Ireland’s deputy premier has said the suspension of funding for a relief agency in Gaza could be “catastrophic”, and added he will raise the issue with other countries.

Tanaiste Micheal Martin said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is an “essential linchpin” and to remove funding during the Israeli offensive in Gaza would be “devastating”.

Mr Martin said he understood concerns about recent allegations relating to agency employees, but there needed to be “a sense of perspective” about the number of employees involved.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said it had terminated contracts with “several” employees and ordered an investigation after Israel provided information alleging they played a role in the Hamas attack on October 7.

The US State Department has said the allegations relate to 12 employees.

The UK, the US, Australia, Italy and Canada temporarily paused funding for UNRWA, which is playing a central role in providing aid for Gazans amid the Israeli offensive in the enclave.

Asked about the funding pause, Mr Martin said: “UNRWA is the key humanitarian intervention for decades and ever since the Nakba, as Palestinians would call it.

“UNRWA had been supporting Palestinian refugees in Jordan, in the West Bank, in Gaza, for decades now, it is the essential linchpin of economic support, humanitarian support in the form of food, healthcare supports in terms of health centres and hospitals.

“When I was in Gaza, it was UNRWA who were supporting the primary school system, and to pull that out now would be catastrophic in the context of a terrible war.

“So our impulse is fundamentally a humanitarian impulse, realising the enormity of the UNRWA contribution to basic necessities of life in Gaza. To pull away that now, I think, would be devastating for Gazans and devastating for ordinary people living in Gaza.

“I can’t understand how we could contemplate it, to be honest, from a humanitarian point of view.”

Asked if he would raise the issue during meetings with the UK and the US, Mr Martin said: “I will be advocating with whomever I meet, yes, for the restoration of support to UNRWA.”

Asked whether it would be raised during St Patrick’s Day events in March, the foreign affairs minister said: “I would hope it will be restored before then.”

Mr Martin said he had “no issue” with the European Union “reviewing” the situation as long as “aid keeps flowing”.

“I have met Philippe Lazzarini on a number of occasions. He has asked Ireland’s assistance in the past to endeavour to make UNRWA sustainable into the future from a financial perspective.

“I understand the concerns, but I do believe he will deal with it, he will deal with the issues as they have arisen, but in my view, given the size of the organisation – 30,000 people altogether in UNRWA, 13,000 working in Gaza – there has to be a sense of perspective in terms of what’s been alleged and the numbers involved.”

He said what happened on October 7 was a “heinous, appalling act of inhumanity”, but people in Gaza “are starving” and children are being killed.

“We want the violence to stop, we want a humanitarian ceasefire. But above all, when we met with the Arab states last week at the Foreign Affairs Council, they repeatedly said to us at the end, ‘Can you get more trucks in, we just need aid, we need help’.”

Asked if Ireland has made any decisions on whether to join South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, he said he would need to brief opposition parties in Ireland.

“I have been briefed preliminarily by my own legal team here in the department and this is complex. It’s not at all simple – we’re talking about the International Court of Justice, we’re talking about the Genocide Convention and I will discuss this with all of the opposition parties because they need to be apprised, I think, of what actually is involved here.

“We’ve also been in touch with the South African government officials as well. They met with our officials in The Hague, they haven’t filed any substantive case yet and there are indications it will take some months for them to do that.

“The fundamental point with intervention is the basis upon which one intervenes in a case of this magnitude and gravity, so there’s a lot of work to be done yet. We will engage with the opposition parties.”