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U.S. suspends aid to Palestinian refugee agency. Norway is still sending money

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Having stopped financial aid to a refugee agency for Palestinians, the United States is setting conditions for restoring it. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at a press conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We're going to be looking very hard at the steps that UNRWA takes to make sure that this is fully and thoroughly investigated, that there's clear accountability and that, as necessary, measures are put in place so that this doesn't happen again.

INSKEEP: UNRWA is the acronym for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. It is the main provider of aid to displaced Palestinians who are inside Gaza and in the middle of a war. The United States and other nations suspended aid after Israel accused some employees of playing roles in the October 7 attacks on Israel. Norway has not changed its stance, and its foreign minister joins us now. Espen Barth Eide is in Norway. Welcome to the program.

ESPEN BARTH EIDE: Thank you very much, and good morning to everyone in America.

INSKEEP: Why not stop the payments?

BARTH EIDE: Because we are - let me first say that we are exactly as shocked and appalled by the accusations of some UNRWA staff potentially having participated in the terrorist attack the 7 of October. That's unacceptable, and we demand full transparency. But cutting funds now is really the wrong moment because we're talking about millions of people in extreme humanitarian distress. Remember that it's not only the bombing and shelling and fighting that kills people. It's actually also now lack of food, lack of clean water, lack of basic medical facilities. And many of those are provided to the extent they are provided at all through UNRWA. So I think what we should abstain from is anything that looks like we're giving a collective punishment against all the Palestinian people because the - of the misdeeds and wrongdoings of some.

INSKEEP: Are you arguing, then, that this agency's thousands of employees do useful work, valuable work, even if some of them were involved in terrorism?

BARTH EIDE: So there's 30,000 employees in UNRWA in several countries, wherever there are Palestinian refugees. Thirteen thousand of those are in Gaza, and the vast majority of these people are performing extremely important lifesaving and humanitarian efforts, many of them at the risk of their life, including those more than 150 of these employees who have been killed in the fighting since 7 October. But it seems that there are serious and credible accusations that a few of them, maybe a dozen, have been involved in totally unacceptable activities, which is to contribute to what happened on the 7 October. That cannot be accepted. There should be zero tolerance. But the reaction should be against those individuals and also to look into how that could happen, not to take away all the funding for a crucially important humanitarian and relief agency, which we really need in these days. And I really don't want to be part of punishing the Palestinian people for what some people have done wrong, even if that was a very big wrong.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that Israel has made other complaints over the years about UNRWA, accusing the agency's schools in Gaza of teaching antisemitism, for example, or that the staff are too close to Hamas. Do you think there is a wider problem that needs to be investigated?

BARTH EIDE: Well, these are familiar accusations, and they have actually been investigated several times, and both in UNRWA and we as donors. Norway is like the U.S. and EU and a large donor. We have repeatedly been working on, for instance, looking into curricula in schools and these issues to ensure that we are not contributing to that. So this is something I feel is taken seriously by the UNRWA leadership and should be taken seriously, obviously. But we have to remember that UNRWA is supporting millions of people, people in Gaza right now who are in extreme distress, but they're also in the West Bank, in Jordan and Lebanon and even Syria and Iraq, and they're assisting people who had no intention of becoming refugees, but they were forced to become refugees by the absence of a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. And I think it's the wrong moment for the international community to punish them collectively over the wrongdoings of some. And having said that, we need also to have full transparency and full investigation of what happened.

INSKEEP: We've got about 15 seconds here. Have you called your American counterparts and said, look, you're overreacting here?

BARTH EIDE: Well, we are talking through all channels to everyone about this because we agree with the Americans and many fellow donors that this has to be investigated into the bottom. But we are worried about the signal that it leads to cutting funding. So that's something we know about each other's view, and we will continue to discuss.

INSKEEP: Espen Barth Eide is the foreign minister of Norway. Foreign Minister, thanks so much.

BARTH EIDE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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