© Reuters. Protesters wave Palestinian flags as they attend a demonstration demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Bogota, Colombia, January 27, 2024. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emma Farge
DOHA/GENEVA (Reuters) -U.N. officials implored countries to reconsider a pause in funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinians on Sunday, vowing to punish anyone involved in Hamas’ attack on Israel and warning that aid for some two million people in Gaza was at stake.
At least nine countries, including top donors the U.S. and Germany, have paused funding for the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians (UNRWA) following allegations by Israel that a dozen of its 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in the Oct. 7 rampage.
“While I understand their concerns – I was myself horrified by these accusations – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Sunday, vowing to hold to account “any U.N. employee involved in acts of terror”.
He said this could include criminal prosecution – a rare move within the global body since most staff enjoy functional immunity, although Guterres has the power to waive it.
Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general, also urged countries to “reconsider their decisions before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response.” A U.N. investigation into the Israeli allegations is currently under way.
More than 26,000 people have been killed in Israel’s military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, the enclave’s health ministry said. With flows of aid like food and medicine into the territory just a trickle of pre-conflict levels, deaths from preventable diseases as well as the risk of famine are growing, aid officials say.
Since the Oct. 7 attacks, which killed 1,200 people in Israel, most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have become reliant on the aid UNRWA provides, including about one million who have fled Israeli bombardments sheltering in its facilities.
Observers and aid workers said the move by donors would exacerbate hunger.
“Donors, do not starve children for the sins of a few individual aid workers,” said Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council. A U.N. appointed expert on the right to food Michael Fakhri warned that the funding cuts meant that famine was now “inevitable” in Gaza. Palestinians expressed anger at the funding cuts.
“We used to say Israel was launching a war of famine against us in parallel to its war of destruction, now those countries who suspended the aid to UNRWA declared themselves partners in this war, and collective punishment,” said Yamen Hamad, who lives at an UNRWA-run school in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza Strip, after fleeing northern Gaza.
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said he was “surprised” by the move to pause UNRWA funding and said it would lead to more suffering for Palestinians.
“Is this action linked to the policy of collective punishment used against civilians in Gaza? These are questions we can continue to ask,” he told a press conference.
UNRWA’s role has long been criticised by Israel which alleges it has supported Hamas for years – an allegation the agency denies.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Saturday called for agency to be replaced and urged more countries to cut funding. Deputy U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq declined to respond directly to Katz’s remarks but said UNRWA overall had a strong record.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of leading an oppressive campaign against the agency. “The campaign aims to liquidate the issue of Palestinian refugees…,” he said in a statement.
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the Israeli accusations against UNRWA were a challenge to the International Court of Justice’s Friday decision that ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza.
Israel has not yet publicly given details of UNRWA staff members’ alleged involvement in the attack on Israel. Guterres said 12 staff members had been implicated and that nine had been terminated, one was dead and the identities of the other two were being clarified.
There was no immediate sign of countries’ heeding the U.N. call to reinstate aid. However, Norway and Ireland said they would continue funding the agency.
Israel has been strongly critical of the United Nations and in particular Guterres since early in the war. Israel’s then foreign minister Eli Cohen said on Nov. 14 that Guterres was not fit to head the organisation, saying he had not done enough to condemn Hamas and was too close to Iran.
UNRWA was set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding and provides education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Even before the conflict, UNRWA was struggling to secure funding and warned that it was on the verge of collapse. Many of its 13,000 staff members are refugees themselves and at least 150 have been killed since the Israel-Hamas conflict began.