UNRWA claims: UN agency condemns aid halt over alleged help for Hamas attacks

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Palestinians carry bags of flour they took from an aid lorry in Gaza City. Photo: 27 January 2024Image source, Reuters

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA has urged the countries that halted funding to reconsider their “shocking” decision.

“UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over two million people depending on it for their sheer survival,” Philippe Lazzarini said.

Nine countries, including the UK, earlier paused funding the agency.

They acted over allegations that some UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October deadly Hamas attacks on Israel.

The agency later announced it was sacking those employees.

The countries that have now suspended funding UNRWA are Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK and the US.

Created in 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, is the biggest UN agency operating in Gaza. It provides healthcare, education and other humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It employs around 13,000 people inside Gaza.

Since Israel began its offensive in response to the Hamas attacks UNRWA has used its facilities across Gaza to shelter hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

The information on UNRWA employees’ alleged involvement in the Hamas attacks was supplied by Israel, which has long accused different branches of the UN – including UNRWA – of bias and even of antisemitism.

In a statement on Saturday, Mr Lazzarini said: “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation. 

“It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region. 

“UNRWA shares the list of all its staff with host countries every year, including Israel. The agency never received any concerns on specific staff members.”

Mr Lazzarini added that an investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services into “the heinous allegations will establish the facts”.

An adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday told the BBC that the 7 October Hamas attacks had involved “people who are on their [UNRWA] salaries”.

Mark Regev said there was information showing teachers working in UNRWA schools had “openly celebrated” the attacks. Hamas gunmen killed around 1,300 people, mostly civilians, and took another 250 hostage.

Mr Regev also referred to an Israeli hostage who, on her release, said she had been “held in the house of someone who worked for UNRWA”.

“They have a union which is controlled by Hamas and I think it’s high time that the UN investigated these links between UNRWA and Hamas,” he added.

A boy looks at UNRWA aid bags. File photo

Image source, Getty Images

The allegations prompted reaction from major donors.

“The UK is appalled by allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attack against Israel, a heinous act of terrorism that the UK Government has repeatedly condemned,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement on Saturday.

“The UK is temporarily pausing any future funding of UNRWA whilst we review these concerning allegations,” it added.

Earlier, the US State Department announced it was suspending additional funding to the UN agency, saying it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations.

The EU said it would assess further steps “based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation”.

The US, Germany and EU are among some of UNRWA’s biggest donors.

UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was “horrified by this news”.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said he aimed to stop UNRWA operating in Gaza after the war.

But the Palestinian Authority’s minister for civilian affairs, Hussein Al-Sheikh, said the decision by some countries to pause support for the vital UN agency “entails great political and humanitarian relief risks”.

The 7 October attacks triggered Israel’s massive retaliation on Hamas in Gaza – air strikes and shelling that have killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

UNRWA says it is struggling to get humanitarian aid to many of the estimated 1.7 million people – nearly three-quarters of the population – displaced by 12 weeks of fighting.

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