UN chief urges donors to restore UNRWA funds frozen over Oct. 7 allegations

Guterres promises those involved in massacre will be held to account but says funding necessary to ensure crucial services for Gazans; 9 out of 12 suspects fired, 1 dead

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a Security Council meeting regarding the Israel-Hamas war at the UN headquarters in New York on January 23, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a Security Council meeting regarding the Israel-Hamas war at the UN headquarters in New York on January 23, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

The UN chief has called on donor states to guarantee the flow of aid to Gaza after several halted funding to the agency for Palestinians over claims some of its staff participated in the October 7 massacre.

While the row over the UNRWA aid agency for Palestinian refugees deepened, heavy fighting in the besieged Gaza Strip sent more people fleeing south toward the Egyptian border.

UNRWA said on Friday it had fired several employees over Israel’s unspecified accusations about the involvement of some of its staff in Hamas’s devastating October 7 onslaught.

Donors including Germany, Britain, Italy, Australia, and Finland on Saturday followed the lead of the United States, which said it had suspended additional funding to the agency over the accusations.

“While I understand their concerns — I was myself horrified by these accusations — I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement late on Saturday.

Guterres said the “abhorrent alleged acts” of some UNRWA staff should not mean that its thousands of other humanitarian workers were penalized.

File: The Commissioner-General of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

He said that of the 12 employees accused of taking part in the attack, nine had been immediately terminated, one was confirmed dead, and “the identity of the two others is being clarified.” He said all would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

“The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he said.

UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza, nearly all of them Palestinians. It provides basic services, from medical care to education, for Palestinian families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 Independence War — a majority of Gaza’s population. It has expanded operations during the war, running shelters housing hundreds of thousands of newly displaced people.

In a statement, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan blasted Guterres for seeking funds for the organization after the allegations were raised, charging that he “proves again that the lives and safety of Israeli citizens are not really important to him.”

“After years in which he ignored the evidence shown to him personally about the support and involvement of UNRWA in incitement and terror, and before he launches a comprehensive investigation to locate all the terrorists and murders of Hamas in UNRWA, he is focused on drawing support for the organization of murder and terrorism,” Erdan said.

“Every country that continues to fund UNRWA before a comprehensive investigation into the organization needs to know that its money will be used for terror and the assistance that is given to UNRWA is liable to go to Hamas terrorists instead of the population of Gaza,” he added, calling on all countries to freeze their funding and demand a probe into the body.

File: Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan speaks while holding a photo of weapons sent by Iran to Houthi rebels in Yemen that were intercepted by US forces, during a UN Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, on January 23, 2024. (Peter K. Afriyie/AP)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini to quit after saying earlier the body “must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development” after Gaza’s bloodiest war.

“Mr Lazzarini please resign,” Katz said on social media platform X late on Saturday in response to a post by the UNRWA chief warning that the funding cuts meant the agency’s operations in Gaza were close to collapse.

War erupted on October 7 when some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were killed by Hamas terrorists who rampaged across southern Israel. Another 253 people, also largely civilians, were abducted and taken into Gaza, where 132 remain.

Israel responded with a massive offensive aimed at destroying Hamas in Gaza, where it has ruled since 2007, and bringing back the hostages.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says over 26,000 people have been killed and some 64,000 people wounded in the war. The figures are unverified and are believed to include close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel said it has killed during fighting in the Strip, as well as people killed by terror groups’ misfired rockets.

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