(Bloomberg) — The United Nations fired several staffers at its Palestinian refugee agency over Israeli allegations that they took part in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, news that prompted the US and other countries to suspend funding.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “is horrified by the news” that workers with the UN Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, may have been involved in the attack by Hamas militants on southern Israel, and urged the agency’s chief to refer the accused for potential prosecution, his office said in a statement Friday. According to the statement, there will be an “urgent and comprehensive independent review” of the agency.
The claims come as a black eye for UNRWA, which provides humanitarian assistance and protection to Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. It has long been regarded with suspicion by Israel and Republicans in the US, who argue that it only fuels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and money going to food, education and health care frees up Hamas to fund hostilities against Israel.
“These shocking allegations come as more than 2 million people in Gaza depend on lifesaving assistance that the agency has been providing since the war began,” UNRWA Director-General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement Friday. “Anyone who betrays the fundamental values of the United Nations also betrays those whom we serve in Gaza, across the region and elsewhere around the world.”
Israel said it will seek US and European Union support to halt UNRWA operations in Gaza. Foreign Minister Israel Katz wrote in a post on X that his ministry wants to ensure the agency “will not be part of the day after.”
He urged the UN to take “immediate personal actions” against the UNRWA leadership.
While criticism over UNRWA’s role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict became even more charged after Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel, the group has also paid a heavy price in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, with more than 150 of its staff killed in the violence.
A vast majority of UNRWA’s 30,000 staff is Palestinian, with 13,000 of those in Gaza. The US State Department said in a statement Friday that 12 UNRWA staff had been accused of links to the attacks.
The US — UNRWA’s main donor — also announced Friday it was suspending additional funding for the organization in the wake of the allegations. “There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of Oct. 7,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in the statement. The US contributed more than $296 million to the group in 2023.
Australia, Canada and Italy also said they are pausing additional funding to UNRWA.
Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had warned the Biden administration for years about funding the agency, which he said “has a history of employing people connected to terrorist movements like Hamas.”
Despite the recent allegations, the US signaled it continues to support the agency. UNRWA plays “a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support,” Miller said in the statement.
The EU also expressed concern over the allegations, and said it expects UNRWA “to provide full transparency on the allegations and to take immediate measures against staff involved.”
(Updates with Israel seeking to halt UNRWA activities in fifth paragraph)
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