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US halts funding for UN agency for Palestinians after staff's alleged involvement in Hamas' Oct 7 attacks

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General, said Israeli authorities provided evidence about the alleged involvement of the agency's staffers in the Hamas' October 7 attacks on Israel. The US State Department said at least 12 UNRWA employees are involved in the brutal attacks.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Gaza Published on: January 27, 2024 10:52 IST
Israel Hamas war, US halts funding for UNRWA, Hamas attacks
Image Source : AP Palestinians arrive in southern Gaza's Rafah town after fleeing Khan Younis

Israel-Hamas war: The United States on Friday temporarily halted funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) after the latter fired a number of its staffers suspected of aiding the October 78 attacks by Hamas and other militants on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people. The UNRWA was the main agency providing aid for Gaza's population amid the humanitarian catastrophe triggered by Israel's military campaign.

The United States was the agency's biggest donor, although the UNRWA officials did not comment on the impact that the US halt in funding would have on its operations. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said it terminated contracts with “several” employees and ordered an investigation after Israel provided information alleging they played a role in the October 7 attack.

According to the US State Department, at least 12 UNRWA employees are involved in the October 7 attacks by Hamas. "Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on January 25 to emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter.  We welcome the decision to conduct such an investigation and Secretary General Guterres’ pledge to take decisive action to respond, should the allegations prove accurate.  We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA," said department spokesperson Matthew Miller in a statement.

UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza, almost all of them Palestinians, ranging from teachers in schools that the agency runs to doctors, medical staff and aid workers. The US acknowledged that the agency has played a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians and saving lives. 

What did UNRWA say?

In a statement, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General, said Israeli authorities provided evidence about the alleged involvement of the agency's staffers in the Hamas attacks. A senior Israeli official told Axios that the Shin Bet and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers along with the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 campaign, according to The Times of Israel.

"To protect the Agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay.  Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution," Lazzarini said.

Guterres said in a statement that he was "horrified" by the news and has asked Lazzarini to investigate this matter swiftly and to ensure that any UNRWA employee shown to have participated or abetted what transpired on October 7. Canada took similar measures on Friday, halting funding to the organization and saying it was “deeply troubled by the allegations relating to some UNRWA employees". Lazzarini did not elaborate on what the staffers’ alleged role was in the attacks. 

Since the war’s start, Israel’s assault has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, most women and children, and wounded more than 64,400 others, Gaza’s Health Ministry said on Friday. More than 150 UNWRA employees are among those killed — the highest toll the world body has suffered in a conflict — and a number of UN shelters have been hit in the bombardment.

Israel’s near-complete seal on Gaza has left almost the entire population reliant on a trickle of international aid able to enter the territory each day. UN officials say about a quarter of the population now faces starvation. Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres' spokesman, said an “urgent and comprehensive” independent review of the agency would be conducted.

Allegations on UNRWA

UNRWA was created to care for millions of Palestinians across the Middle East whose families fled or were forced from properties inside what is Israel during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Israel rejects the return of the refugees to their former lands.

Israeli officials and their allies — including in the US Congress — frequently allege that UNRWA allows anti-Israeli incitement to be taught in its hundreds of schools and that some of its staff collaborate with Hamas. The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but President Joe Biden restored it.

The agency’s supporters say the allegations aim to diminish the long-festering refugee issue. Thousands of Palestinians fled the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on Friday as fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli forces intensified. Khan Younis was initially settled by Palestinians who fled or were driven during the 1948 war and has been built up into an urbanised district.

The intense fighting came as the United Nations’ top court ordered Israel to do all it could to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, stopping short of a ceasefire. South Africa has accused Israel of genocide in its offensive, and the court dismissed a request by Israel, which rejects the accusation, that the case be thrown out.

(with inputs from AP)


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