UN chief urges countries not to pull funding over Israel attack allegations

UN secretary-general António Guterres appealed to world leaders to continue funding the agency that aids Palestinian refugees, after several countries suspended their support following allegations that staff had taken part in Hamas’s October 7 attacks in Israel.

The US, UK, Germany, Italy, Finland, Australia and Canada suspended their support for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees after it said on Friday that it had fired “several” employees following information from Israel about their alleged involvement in the assault.

Guterres said nine UNRWA employees had been fired, one was no longer alive and that the identities of two additional individuals implicated in the case were being clarified.

While he said he was “horrified” by the allegations, which the agency is investigating, the UN chief said financial support for those in “dire need” should continue.

“Two million civilians in Gaza depend on critical aid from UNRWA for daily survival,” he said. “I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations.”

UNRWA, which has 30,000 employees overall and 13,000 in Gaza, is the primary agency for administering aid and running schools and hospitals for Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Talks were held in Paris over the weekend between David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and CIA director Bill Burns over a possible ceasefire in Gaza that would also free the remaining Israeli hostages seized by Hamas on October 7. Ronen Bar, head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, and Abbas Kamel, head of Egyptian intelligence, also attended.

Qatar, along with the US and Egypt, successfully mediated a one-week truce in late November which saw more 100 Israeli hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails released.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing domestic pressure to secure the release of the remaining 136 Israeli hostages. But it has rejected Hamas’s demand for a permanent ceasefire.

The UK, which has proposed its own plan to end the Israel-Hamas war, said it was “appalled by allegations that UNRWA staff were involved in the October 7 attack against Israel, a heinous act of terrorism that the UK government has repeatedly condemned”.

The German foreign ministry said it would not approve any new funding for UNRWA in Gaza until the end of the investigation, though it has boosted its funding for other international aid organisations.

Antonio Tajani, the Italian foreign minister, posted on social media platform X: “The Italian government has suspended financing . . . after the atrocious attack on Israel on October 7.”

Norway said it would continue its financial assistance to UNRWA while awaiting the results of the investigation.

“International support for Palestine is needed now more than ever,” Norway’s representative to the Palestinian Authority said on X. “We need to distinguish between what individuals may have done and what UNRWA stands for.”

Philippe Lazzarini, the UNRWA commissioner-general, urged the countries to reconsider their suspension before the agency was “forced to suspend its humanitarian response”.

“The lives of people in Gaza depend on this support and so does regional stability,” he said in a statement. “It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals.”

Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s secretary-general, warned that the suspension of funding carried “great political and humanitarian risks” at a time when millions of Palestinians in Gaza depended on the agency for food, water and medicine.

“We are in desperate need of support rather than the cutting off of crucial aid and assistance,” he said. Kristyan Benedict, of Amnesty International UK, called the UK’s announcement “a terrible decision”.

“UNRWA is desperately trying to assist Palestinian civilians facing famine and disease in Gaza amid Israel’s ongoing bombardment and blockade, and it’s these civilians who’ll be punished by the UK’s decision,” he said.

UNRWA schools in Gaza shelter hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Palestinians and have been targeted by the Israeli military on several occasions in recent weeks.

The Israel Defense Forces has said that it was responding to fire from militants on those occasions.

At least 150 UNRWA employees have been killed since Israel began its military campaign in Gaza.

UNRWA has been a frequent target of Israeli criticism that the UN and other international bodies are biased towards Palestinians. Israel has called for the agency’s responsibilities to be handed over to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister, wrote on X that his government would not allow UNRWA to be part of “the day after” in Gaza, a reference to how the enclave would be run once the war ends.

“We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza,” Katz wrote.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin

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