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U.N. chief calls for continued Palestinian aid after some countries halted funding

United Nations and Red Crescent workers prepare aid for distribution to Palestinians at a UNRWA warehouse in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. says 12 UNRWA employees were involved in Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Hassan Eslaiah
United Nations and Red Crescent workers prepare aid for distribution to Palestinians at a UNRWA warehouse in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. says 12 UNRWA employees were involved in Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Updated January 27, 2024 at 10:55 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — The secretary-general of the United Nations has called on countries to continue funding the main agency that provides aid to Palestinians in Gaza, following allegations that some of its employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed some 1,200 people in Israel.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, fired multiple employees over the allegations. In response to the claims, several donor countries have joined the U.S. — the agency's biggest donor — in pausing funding.

Speaking on Sunday, Antonio Guterres warned the UNRWA would be forced to scale back aid to more than 2 million Palestinians as soon as February if funding stops. The Gaza strip is in the grip of a severe humanitarian crisis, with a quarter of the population facing starvation.

"The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences," Guterres said in a statement.

"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. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met," he added.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said in a statement on Friday: "The Israeli Authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on 7 October".

"To protect the Agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay."

Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for "an urgent investigation by UNRWA regarding the involvement of its employees in the terrorist events of 10/7."

"It is important that UNRWA conduct a thorough internal inspection regarding the activities of Hamas and other terrorist elements in its ranks in order to ensure that the organization's humanitarian activities are not abused," it said in a statement.

Neither Israel nor the United Nations immediately provided further details on the allegations against the UNRWA employees.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini called the allegations "shocking" in a statement and called for an investigation.
John Minchillo / AP
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini called the allegations "shocking" in a statement and called for an investigation.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Thursday to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres about the current allegations of U.N. workers' involvement in the Oct. 7 attack and urged a thorough and swift investigation.

Twelve UNRWA employees were allegedly involved, according to the U.S. State Department, which also said it has temporarily paused additional funding for the U.N. agency "while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them."

In his statement, UNRWA's Lazzarini called the allegations against the agency employees "shocking."

"More than 2 million people in Gaza depend on lifesaving assistance that the Agency has been providing since the war began," he said. "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."

Several countries have joined the U.S. in halting funding to the U.N. agency, including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Italy.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that while the UNRWA does vital, life-saving work," the country will pause its disbursement of recent funding.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in a post on social media that it suspended funding to the UNRWA, adding that it remains committed to humanitarian assistance to Palestinians as well as protecting Israel's security.

Canada's international development minister Ahmed Hussen said the country had paused additional funding while UNRWA investigates the allegations.

UNRWA plays a critical role in supporting Palestinians fleeing the war in Gaza. The agency estimates that up to 1.9 million people are sheltering in or near its facilities, which include schools and aid warehouses. UNRWA also has been coordinating convoys of food and medical supplies into Gaza.

Facilities run by the agency have repeatedly come under fire in the war. Most recently, on Jan. 24, a building inside UNRWA's training center in Khan Younis was struck by shells. The agency said that the building housed some 800 displaced people and that at least 13 people were killed and 56 injured in the incident.

Israel's military, known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has denied involvement in that incident. "After an examination of our operational systems, the IDF has currently ruled out that this incident is a result of an aerial or artillery strike by the IDF. A thorough review of the operations of the forces in the vicinity is underway," it said in a statement.

Heavy fighting in Khan Younis has killed and wounded dozens of people in recent days, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. It estimates that over 26,000 people have died in Gaza since the war began. This total includes both combatants and civilians. The ministry says the majority of those who have been killed are women and children.

In a statement on Saturday, UNRWA's Lazzarini saidthat nine countries had suspended their funding, decisions that he said threaten the agency's humanitarian work across the region.

"It is shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation," he said.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report from Washington, and Eve Guterman and Alon Avital contributed from Tel Aviv, Israel. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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