UNRWA Still Facing Attacks and Shortfall After Being Largely Cleared in Probe

Switzerland is among a few recalcitrant donors still receptive to heavy lobbying by Israel and allies, including the Geneva-based NGO ‘UN Watch’.

Switzerland Continues to Withhold Funding

Israel has failed to provide evidence to back up its allegations that some aid workers from the UN’s main humanitarian agency in Gaza took part in Hamas terror attacks of October 7, an independent panel found this week. But Switzerland is among a few recalcitrant donors still receptive to heavy lobbying by Israel and allies, including the Geneva-based NGO ‘UN Watch’.

Sixteen countries froze funding after Israeli’s claims, leaving a $450 million shortfall just as famine set in among 2.3 million Palestinians living in the occupied Gaza Strip, where Hamas authorities say nearly 35,000 have died in seven months of Israeli bombing.

Switzerland, whose annual contribution to UNRWA was $20 million, is among a handful of donors whose funding remains suspended, along with Britain. Germany, UNRWA’s second biggest donor, announced on Tuesday it would resume contributions, following donors from Japan to the European Union.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it was “analyzing in detail” the independent report led by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, and would confer with the parliament’s foreign affairs committees on future funding. UNRWA’s director-general Philippe Lazzarini is scheduled to give a press conference in Geneva on April 30, but is not expected to meet with Swiss authorities, UNRWA said.

“Political Satellite”

Carlo Sommaruga, a Geneva MP from the Socialist Democratic Party serving on one of the Swiss parliament’s two committees on foreign policy, voiced outrage at the Swiss position of withholding funds from UNRWA.

“Switzerland is marginalizing itself as a political satellite of Israel,” Sommaruga told The Geneva Observer, also likening the Bern government to a “little poodle.”

“It’s scandalous—no funds to help people undergoing an armed genocidal aggression,” he said, citing the landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice in January, which found that Israel’s war of aggression could amount to genocide. 

“[Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio] Cassis has said UNRWA is part of the problem, not the solution. That is the narrative of Israel, they want UNRWA to disappear,” Sommaruga said. Referring to UN Watch, he added: “They deliver non-stop information to certain parliamentarians to maintain pressure on the Federal Council [the Swiss government]. They are received by Ignazio Cassis and his office.”

UN Watch has blocked this reporter on Twitter and not replied to previous inquiries, following our February story on their criticism of the ICRC.

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UN Watch, a Geneva-based activist group that has repeatedly denounced the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, has shifted to waging a campaign against the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), accusing it of “bias” against Israel and violating its guiding principle of neutrality in the Gaza conflict. The

Pierre-Andre Page, an MP from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (UDC) also serving on the foreign policy committee, told Swiss public broadcaster RTS on Monday: “I think it was important to stop funding given that there was this accusation made by Israel. UNRWA’s director-general Philippe Lazzarini immediately fired 12 people, which, after all, is proof to me that there was a problem.”

“And now we have to shed full light. I have invited Mr. Hillel Neuer of UN Watch to address us, to have a counterpoint to this analysis so that we that we can really evaluate the situation. It is really important to have both viewpoints,” he said.

Page, asked whether he might reconsider funding after the UN-mandated report said that UNRWA is “irreplaceable and indispensable,” replied: “I think it is important to maintain transparency to ensure the neutrality of UNRWA. To my mind, that element is vital, before we transfer any funds. You cannot transfer sums to a terrorist association.” It was not clear if the MP was referring only to Hamas, or to UNRWA.

Israeli Lobbying

Laurence Fehlmann Rielle, a Geneva MP from the Social Democratic Party who also serves on the foreign policy committee, called for a resumption of Swiss funding in light of the report’s findings and the “catastrophic” situation in Gaza. Asked on RTS why the United States and other donors would not release funds, she said: “It’s the Israeli lobby that is playing a role. And it also plays a role in Switzerland with some elected officials. It is extremely strong in wanting to take down UNRWA.”

Fehlmann Rielle, asked whether some Swiss politicians, notably in the UDC, might be subjected to manipulation or lobbying, said: “Lobbying in any case. In fact, a kind of ideological blindness which makes associations that are completely ridiculous, that UNRWA equals Hamas.”

UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in New York on Tuesday he had urged the Security Council to support “an independent investigation and accountability for the blatant disregard of UN premises, UN staff and UN operations in the Gaza Strip. […] As of today, it is 180 UNRWA staff that have been killed, we had more than 160 premises which have been damaged or completely destroyed, with 400 people at least having been killed while they were seeking the protection of the UN flag.”

The two-month review, carried out by Colonna and three Nordic research institutes, largely vindicated the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), saying it had a “robust framework,” but that “neutrality-related issues persist.” 

Lazzarini, who immediately sacked 12 employees implicated by Israel in late January, welcomed the Colonna report, saying his embattled agency would work to implement its 50 recommendations, which include strengthening internal audits and project oversight. “I hope that with this report and the measures that we will be putting in place that the last group of donors will get the necessary confidence to come back as a donor and partner of the agency,” the Swiss-Italian veteran humanitarian said.

A separate investigation by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is still underway into alleged UNRWA staff participation in the Hamas-led assault in Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took hostage roughly 250.

Bridging the Funding Gap

The United States, UNRWA’s largest donor, has blocked its annual funding ($300 million to $400 million) until March 2025, Lazzarini noted, adding: “My task now is to try to bridge the gap left behind. Today I can say that we have funding […] until the end of June which will bring us into July.”

Grassroots digital contributions of $100 million have poured in since the war began, he said. Meanwhile UNRWA is seeking $1.2 billion to confront the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Refugee Status

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Oren Marmorstein repeated its unsubstantiated allegations hours after Colonna’s report: “Hamas has infiltrated UNRWA so deeply that it is no longer possible to determine where UNRWA ends and where Hamas begins.”

“Israel calls on the donor countries to refrain from transferring their taxpayers’ money to UNRWA-Gaza, as these funds will go to the Hamas terrorist organization, and that violates legislation in the donor countries themselves,” he said.

UNRWA, whose 33,000 aid workers deployed across the Middle East—including 13,000 in Gaza—provide health, education, and social services to Palestinian refugees, has been challenged throughout its 75-year existence, but never with such virulence, Lazzarini said.

“The real intent behind the attack on UNRWA is of a political nature, because it has as an objective to strip Palestinians of the refugee status, to start with in Gaza, and then East Jerusalem and the West Bank. And basically, this is exactly what we heard at the [Security] Council from the Israeli ambassador. That this is indeed a stated objective today,” he said. 

“The agency has never been a target of an open campaign for the total dismantlement of its activities in Gaza—and possibly beyond. So I think the [recent campaign] we have gone through is quite unique, I would say, in its ferocity but also in its scope,” Lazzarini said.