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LONDON: A UK law firm is challenging the British government’s decision to halt funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the firm said on Wednesday.

London-based Bindmans LLP has sent a pre-action letter to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on behalf of a British-Palestinian man wanting to protect his family members, who are UNRWA-registered refugees.

The man’s parents, who live in the Jabalia refugee camp in Northern Gaza, rely entirely on the aid provided by UNRWA. They, like many others, are experiencing severe food, water and basic necessity shortages.

Bindman’s complaint alleges that the government’s decision may violate its international obligations, potentially implicating it in Israel’s apparent violations of the Genocide Convention and Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is also argued that the decision contradicts the FCDO’s Strategy for International Development and its International Humanitarian Framework.

Recent expert analyzes have indicated that a famine in the region is imminent, with more than one million Palestinians facing extreme hunger.

This comes after eight UN special rapporteurs highlighted the dire food and water crisis in Gaza, declaring that “every single person in Gaza is hungry, a quarter of the population is starving and struggling to find food and drinkable water, and famine is imminent.”

The UK decided to halt funding on Jan. 27 after Israeli officials accused 12 UNRWA staff members, from a total number of 30,000, of participating in the Oct. 7 attacks against Israel, without providing evidence.

International agencies, including US intelligence services, have questioned Israel’s unsubstantiated claims.

Earlier in February, UNRWA said that some employees released into Gaza from Israeli detention reported having been pressured by Israeli authorities into falsely stating that the agency has Hamas links and that staff took part in attacks.

The assertions are contained in a report reviewed by Reuters, which detailed allegations of mistreatment in Israeli detention made by unidentified Palestinians, including several working for UNRWA.

For the past ten years, at least half of the UK government’s aid to Palestinians has gone through UNRWA, the largest aid provider in Palestine.

The UK has failed to explain why it has withdrawn funds and has not responded to the UN’s interim report detailing UNRWA’s robust response to the allegations, Bindman said. It also pointed out that other allied countries, such as Canada and EU member states, have expressed satisfaction with the report and pledged to resume funding.

Their legal challenge claims that the decision to withdraw funding was made illogically and without due consideration for evidence, international obligations or FCDO decision-making frameworks.

The claimant wants this decision reversed and UNRWA’s funding restored. If the government fails to restore UNRWA funding by April 2, a judicial review will be launched.

On Jan. 26, only one day prior to the day before the government’s decision, the International Court of Justice issued a ruling in the case of South Africa v Israel. The judges agreed on the plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and issued provisional measures to prevent irreparable harm to Palestinian rights.

The funding suspension has significantly impacted UNRWA’s ability to operate in Gaza, with EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warning of the agency’s potential financial collapse in 2024.

“The UK government’s strategy for international development sets out four priorities, including to: ‘provide life-saving humanitarian assistance and work to prevent the worst forms of human suffering,’” Alice Hardy, a partner at Bindmans LLP, said.

“Given the catastrophic situation in Gaza, including an impending, man-made famine, the ongoing decision to cease funding to UNRWA is not only morally wrong but flies in the face of that strategy,” Hardy said.

International Center of Justice for Palestinians Senior Public Affairs Officer Jonathan Purcell said: “The government knows that UNRWA is the only effective means to deliver humanitarian aid, and it ought to know that it hasn’t given sufficient reason on how, or why, it decided to cut funding. When the decision to withdraw funds was taken, it was illogical. Now, with Gaza staring famine in the face, it is unconscionable. The government must restore funding immediately if it doesn’t wish to be complicit in the thousands of deaths by hunger and thirst which are, terribly, very likely to occur in the months to come.” 

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