(Bloomberg) — The head of the United Nations vowed decisive action against any staff in Gaza found to have taken part in October’s attack on Israel and urged nations not to withhold funding for the “desperate populations” receiving aid as the war continues.
“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences,” Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Sunday, referring to the UN Relief and Works Agency. “But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized.”
So far, the UN said 12 people have been implicated in taking part in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, which killed 1,200. Nine of the UN staff have been fired, one is confirmed dead and the identify of two others is being clarified, according to Guterres.
Fury over the latest developments prompted nations including the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany and Finland to say they will pause funding for the agency. That led UNRWA to issue an urgent appeal, saying it won’t be able to meet the needs of people in Gaza next month.
The agency — long a lifeline for the most vulnerable populations in Gaza — has become more essential since Israel sent troops into the territory to dislodge Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the US and EU. That’s left more than 2 million people increasingly dependent on food, water and medical aid, according to the UN.
UK Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch on Sunday said there was “clearly a problem” with the agency.
“There have been very significant allegations made that people from the UN’s relief works agency participated or had privy knowledge to the October 7 attacks,” she told Sky News. “That is extremely serious and I think it is quite right that we suspend payments to them.”
Britain will continue funding other humanitarian organizations working within Gaza, including the Red Cross and Unicef, she said.
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Since the allegations against UNRWA staffers were made last week, the UN has sought to balance outrage over their alleged actions against the need to provide humanitarian support.
“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,” UNRWA Director-General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement Friday.
A vast majority of UNRWA’s 30,000 staff is Palestinian, with 13,000 of those in Gaza. The US is UNRWA’s single-biggest donor, having contributed more than $296 million to the group in 2023.
The agency 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. That argument has continued as Israeli forces in Gaza uncover more evidence of tunnels and supplies buried beneath the territory.
While criticism over UNRWA’s role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict became even more charged after Hamas’s October attack, the agency has also paid a heavy price in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, with more than 150 of its staff killed in the violence.
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,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.
—With assistance from Bill Faries and Olivia Rudgard.
(Updates with quotes from UK business secretary from the sixth paragraph)