January 31, 2024: The UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with 35 donor nations and appealed for the restoration of funds to a UN body working for Palestine refugees that is being accused by Israel of participation in the October 7 attacks.
More than 15 UN-member countries including the US and the nations of the European Union have cut off aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Israel alleges that 12 of the UNRWA staff took part in the attack that left 1,200 Israelis dead and 250 taken hostage. UNRWA has 30,000 staff members.
In a statement on January 28, the UN chief said that the organization is promptly responding to the “extremely serious allegations” that several UNRWA personnel were involved in the October 7 terror attacks in southern Israel.
Probe into allegations
An investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the highest investigative body in the UN system, was immediately activated, according to the UN statement.
“Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Mr Guterres said.
“The Secretariat is ready to cooperate with a competent authority able to prosecute the individuals in line with the Secretariat’s normal procedures for such cooperation,” he said.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini had previously announced on January 17, a full, independent review of the agency.
Out of the 12 individuals implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated by the UNRWA head. One is confirmed dead, and the identities of the remaining two are being clarified.
Two million civilian refugees
Over two million civilians in the Gaza Strip depend on lifesaving aid provided by UNRWA. The Agency operates shelters for over one million people and has been providing food and healthcare since the start of the conflict.
However, its current funding is insufficient to meet all requirements to support them in February.
Acknowledging the concerns of the countries that halted funds and expressing his horror at the accusations, Mr Guterres strongly appealed to the governments that suspended contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations.
“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. 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,” he said.
“The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”
“There is no way any organization can replace or substitute the tremendous capacity and the fabric of UNRWA and its ability and knowledge,” said Sigrid Kaag, Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza, on January 30 in New York.
Donor funding cuts stemming from Israel’s allegations will be felt within weeks, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said.
“While we’re addressing these concerns very actively, the humanitarian work needs to go on,” he said. “Civilians in Gaza who are suffering, need the continued support of everyone. The critical humanitarian work the UN does not only in Gaza, but in the region, needs to be supported. People’s lives depend on it.
UNRWA offers assistance and protection to Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5.9 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.
The ongoing conflict has killed at least 26,637 Palestinians in Gaza and left 65,387 injured, according to the enclave’s health authorities. The Israeli military has reported 218 soldiers killed and 1,267 injured in Gaza, according to the UN.