The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Friday it had sacked “several” employees accused by Israel of involvement in Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern communities. The accusation also prompted the United States to suspend critical funding to the organization.
The decision was taken “to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance,” said UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini.
“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” he said.
Israeli authorities had provided information about the staff members’ alleged involvement, he said.
A senior Israeli official told the Axios news site that the Shin Bet and the IDF provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers along with the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 terror onslaught.
“This was strong and corroborated intelligence,” the official told Axios. “A lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants who were arrested during the October 7 attack.”
UN chief Antonio Guterres “is horrified” by the accusations and an “urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA will be conducted,” said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
The US State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations and had “temporarily paused additional funding” while it reviewed the claims and the UN’s plan to address concerns.
Canada took similar measures Friday, halting funding to the organization and saying it was “deeply troubled by the allegations relating to some UNRWA employees.”
While the UNRWA statement did not specify how many staffers it had fired, the US statement revealed that 12 employees “may have been involved.”
The United States was the agency’s biggest bilateral donor in 2022, contributing more than $340 million, according to UNRWA’s website.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Thursday with Guterres “to emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter,” the statement said.
“We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA. There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7,” the State Department said.
The statement underlined that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support.
“Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures.”
The State Department added that the US is in touch with Israel for more information.
The European Union’s top diplomat said he was also “extremely concerned” by the allegations and that the bloc is in touch with UNRWA, but didn’t announce a similar halt in funding.
“We are in contact with UNRWA, expect it to provide full transparency on the allegations and to take immediate measures against staff involved,” Josep Borrell said in a statement, while pledging to “assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation.”
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant hailed the US decision to pause funding to UNRWA, calling the move “an important step in holding UNRWA accountable.”
“Major changes need to take place so that international efforts, funds and humanitarian initiatives don’t fuel Hamas terrorism and the murder of Israelis,” Gallant tweeted. “Terrorism under the guise of humanitarian work is a disgrace to the UN and the principles it claims to represent.”
In his own statement, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said, “How symbolic that precisely on International Holocaust Remembrance Day it was proven what we have been claiming for years: that UNRWA employees are collaborators of the terrorist organization Hamas and that the UN has become not only a place where the existence of the State of Israel is delegitimized, but that its employees physically participated in the attempted extermination of Israel and the murder of its citizens.”
Right-wing pro-Israel groups in the US as well as Republicans had long argued for defunding the agency, saying that its near uniqueness in the world — granting refugee status not just to the first generation of refugees but to their descendants — perpetuated the conflict and a culture of dependence among Palestinians.
Israel’s relationship with the agency, even under the most hawkish of governments, was more ambivalent. Israeli officials believed the agency perpetuated the conflict but also saw the relief the agency provided as a means of keeping the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, from exploding into chaos. UNRWA also provides relief to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The outbreak of war deteriorated relations between Israel and UNRWA. The agency, in sometimes strident tones, said Israel was targeting civilian targets, including its schools and its first responder stations. Israel said UNRWA was, willfully or under threat, providing cover for Hamas terrorists.
The unprecedented October 7 Hamas terror onslaught saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered amid brutual atrocities, and seizing over 250 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians; 132 hostages are still held in Gaza.
Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign, which the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has killed at least 26,000 Palestinians. 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 civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Over 200 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza fighting.
JTA contributed to this report