United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said that an investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services was “immediately activated,” following allegations that 12 staff members of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the organization’s Palestinian refugee agency, were involved in the October 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini “immediately identified and terminated” nine of the implicated people, Guterres said. One person is confirmed dead, and the identities of two other people are “being clarified,” according to the secretary-general.
Any U.N. employee found to have been involved with acts of terror will be held accountable, Guterres said, “including through criminal prosecution.” He said the U.N. “is ready to cooperate with a competent authority able to prosecute individuals in line with the Secretariat’s normal procedures for such cooperation.”
On January 17, UNRWA had announced a full, independent review of the organization, Guterres said.
Guterres also appealed to the countries that have suspended their UNRWA funding, following the allegations about UNRWA staff, to continue their contributions for the 2 million civilians in Gaza who depend on UNRWA for their daily survival and for the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, “many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called Saturday for UNRWA to be “replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development.”
In a social media post, Katz urged that countries follow the example of the United States, Australia, Canada, Britain, Italy and Finland in pausing UNRWA funding.
So far, nine countries have paused funding to the agency.
UNRWA chief Lazzarini said it would be “immensely irresponsible” to sanction the agency and the community it serves at such a desperate time for Palestinians, especially after the agency swiftly fired the “small group” of staffers. The 13,000-strong agency, which relies almost entirely on countries’ contributions, said it now runs shelters for upwards of 1 million people, and its lifeline “can collapse anytime now.”
On X, formerly Twitter, Lazzarini posted about countries withholding their funds, “I am shocked such decisions are taken based on alleged behavior of a few individuals and as the war continues, needs are deepening & famine looms.”
Set up to help refugees of the 1948 war at Israel’s founding, UNRWA provides education, health and aid services to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It helps about two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million population and has played a crucial aid role during the current war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly declared Saturday that Israel will “decide and act according to what is required for [its] security,” in response to the International Court of Justice rebuke of Israel regarding the extent of death and destruction in Gaza.
Since the ruling Friday, Israel’s military is under increasing scrutiny to comply with the court’s report. In a majority ruling of at least 15 out of 17 judges, the court ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against the Palestinians and do more to help civilians.
The court’s binding ruling, however, stopped short of ordering a cease-fire.
The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said Saturday that 174 Palestinians were killed and 310 were wounded in the previous 24 hours. At least 26,257 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in October and 64,797 people wounded, the ministry said.
In Hamas’ attack on October 7, 1,200 people were killed in Israel and roughly 240 were taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities. More than 100 were released during a cease-fire in November.
Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire pummeled Gaza’s southern Khan Younis area. Witnesses said Saturday that three Palestinians were killed in an airstrike that Israel’s military says was targeting a Hamas commander in southern Gaza.
The Israeli military said it killed at least 11 gunmen who were trying to plant explosives near troops and others firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at soldiers in Khan Younis on Saturday. Over the past week, it said its commandos killed more than 100 militants and raided weapons warehouses.
Hamas said its fighters launched an anti-tank missile at an Israeli tank in southwest Khan Younis while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group — which is supporting Hamas — said it fired rockets into Israel and was fighting against Israeli forces.
Israel’s heavy assault and bad weather is hitting displaced Palestinian refugees in Gaza hard, residents say. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli strikes hit near the largest functioning medical facility in the south, Nasser Hospital, and Al Amal Hospital, killing one person.
The Israeli military says it is in contact by phone with hospital directors and medical staff and on the ground to make sure that the hospitals are running and are accessible.
Israel says Hamas operates in and around medical facilities, an allegation Hamas denies.
Netanyahu intensified public pressure on Qatar to broker the release of the hostages in Gaza on Saturday, saying the Gulf emirate should apply the leverage it has as a host and funder of the Hamas militants holding them.
“Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas. It also funds Hamas. It has leverage over Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference. “So, they should be so good as to apply their pressure. They positioned themselves as mediators — so please go right ahead, let them be so good as to bring back our hostages.”
Netanyahu’s remarks came on the eve of what Reuters sources have described as a meeting at an undisclosed location among the Qatari prime minister and intelligence chiefs from Israel, the United States and Egypt to discuss a potential new deal to free the hostages.
The mediators are trying to negotiate a new cease-fire to halt the fighting to allow the release of more hostages and jailed Palestinians held by Israel. About 100 hostages held by Hamas and 240 Palestinians jailed by Israel were freed in a late November weeklong cease-fire.
Hamas has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., U.K., EU and others.