UN chief promises to act immediately against any ‘Hamas infiltration’ of UNRWA

Guterres defends Palestinian refugee agency after firing staff accused of taking part in October 7 attack, says no other organization could replace it

Men sweep water away from the entrance of a school run by UNRWA that is sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Men sweep water away from the entrance of a school run by UNRWA that is sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday pledged to act immediately on any new information from Israel related to “infiltration of Hamas” in the world body, after nine UN staff in the Gaza Strip were fired last month.

Israel last month accused 12 staff with the UN Palestinian refugee agency of taking part in the October 7 attack by Hamas-led terrorists, who killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in the murderous rampage. Of the remaining three staff, one is dead, while the UN was clarifying the identity of the other two.

An internal UN investigation has been launched as the United States — the largest donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — and many other countries paused funding following the allegations.

“One thing that you can be absolutely sure, any delegation that is presented to us by the government of Israel in relation to any other infiltration of Hamas in the UN, at whatever level, we will act immediately upon it,” Guterres told reporters on Thursday.

A six-page Israeli intelligence dossier, seen by Reuters, further alleges that some 190 UNRWA employees, including teachers, have doubled as Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists.

Guterres and UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini say they have not received any further information from Israel since the initial accusations against the 12 staff members. It was not clear whether Israel had provided information to the internal UN inquiry.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks aduring a press briefing at UN headquarters on February 8, 2024 in New York. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

Guterres defended the decision to fire the staff before an inquiry was complete, citing credible information from Israel, adding: “We couldn’t run the risk not to act immediately as the accusations were related to criminal activities.”

He also defended UNRWA’s work, claiming it cannot be replaced.

“No other organization has a meaningful presence inside Gaza — and nothing compared with this situation. So there is no other organization that would be able now to replace” it, Guterres said during the media briefing.

Guterres pointed to the cost effectiveness of UNRWA as he defended why it was the best-placed organization to continue to deliver aid to Gaza.

“The costs with UNRWA are much lower than the costs with other agencies for historical reasons. The salaries paid by UNRWA are one-third of the salaries paid by UNICEF or WFP or other UN organizations,” Guterres said, singling out the UN’s children’s fund and its World Food Program.

“So any attempt of replacement, that is not possible.”

Among the allegations compiled by Israel were charges that UNRWA employees kidnapped Israelis, transported ammunition and the body of a dead soldier, and took part in a murderous assault on a kibbutz on October 7.

The 12 staffers at UNRWA alleged to have been involved in the October 7 onslaught. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Guterres last month described UNRWA as “the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza” and appealed to all countries to “guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s lifesaving work.”

UNRWA was established in 1949 following the war surrounding the founding of Israel, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.

Israel has long sought for UNRWA to be shuttered, claiming that it fosters hate for the Jewish state, perpetuates Palestinian grievances and aids terror, but the complaints have largely failed to gain traction until now.

It employs 30,000 Palestinians to serve the civic and humanitarian needs of 5.9 million descendants of those refugees — in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, and in vast camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. In Gaza, it is providing shelter for some one million people newly displaced by the war between Israel and Hamas, sparked by the October 7 attacks.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the UNRWA’s dismantlement and replacement. On Wednesday night, Netanyahu told a press conference that UNRWA would be replaced and that he had ordered that this process be started.

However, some Israeli officials have voiced concern over the potential economic fallout of axing the agency — one of the largest employers in the West Bank and Gaza — mid-war.

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