Allegations against staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees have prompted several Western countries to defund the body, which provides support services for desperate Palestinians in Gaza, especially in areas pertaining to health and education.
The UN has already terminated the employment of 9 of the 12 accused workers.
Despite the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the besieged territory – where Israel’s war against Hamas has displaced the vast majority of the population and officials say a quarter of Palestinians are starving – major donors, including the US and Britain, have cut funding. On Monday, Japan and Austria joined them in pausing assistance.
With the majority of its budget in doubt, UNRWA says it will be forced to halt operations within weeks if funding isn’t restored.
The threat to the UN agency came as Israel said cease-fire talks held Sunday were constructive but that “significant gaps” remained in any potential agreement. The talks are meant to bring about some respite to war-torn Gaza and secure the release of more than 100 hostages still held in the territory.
Fighting continued, further complicating assistance to war-weary people in Gaza. Israel issued an evacuation order to residents in the western part of Gaza City, urging them to head south. The order indicated that battles are still being waged in northern Gaza, an area Israel pummeled in the first weeks of the war and where it had previously said it held military control.
The war was sparked with Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw some 250 people taken captive, according to Israeli authorities.
The attack set off an intense air, sea and ground offensive that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, most of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.
The war has also threatened to set off a wider regional conflict, with the US announcing three of its troops killed in a strike blamed on Iran-backed militias in Jordan.
The Israeli document, which has been shared with US officials and some journalists lists 12 people, their alleged roles in the attack, job descriptions and photos.
The document said intelligence gathered showed that at least 190 UNRWA workers were Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives, without providing evidence.
It said of the 12 workers, nine were teachers and one a social worker.
Seven of the employees were accused of crossing into Israel on Oct. 7. Of those, two were alleged to have kidnapped or assisted in the abduction of Israelis and another two were said to have participated in raids on communal farming villages, according to the document.
One was accused of arming himself with an anti-tank missile the night before the attack, while the document claimed another took photos of a female hostage.
Some were accused of “participating in a terror activity” or coordinating the movement of trucks or weapons used in the attack. Ten were listed as having ties to Hamas and one to the Islamic Jihad militant group.
The names and photos of the accused workers could not immediately be verified.
Two of the 12 have been killed, according to the document. The UN previously said one was still being identified.
The allegations have stoked longstanding tensions between Israel and UNRWA. Israel says Hamas uses the agency’s facilities to store weapons or launch attacks from. UNRWA says it does not knowingly tolerate such behavior and has internal safeguards to prevent abuses and discipline any wrongdoing.
The agency’s commissioner, Philippe Lazzarini, recently announced that he was ordering an external review of the agency’s operations and its safeguards.
Israel has long been critical of the agency and accuses it of helping to perpetuate the 76-year-old Palestinian refugee crisis. UNRWA says it cares for the vast needs of millions of Palestinians across the Middle East that have been sharply exacerbated by the latest war.
The UN says the entire agency should not be penalized by the alleged actions of the dozen workers, who it says will be held accountable if true. It has called for the donors to resume funding.
The United States, the agency’s largest donor, cut funding over the weekend, followed by several other countries. Together, they provided more than 60% of UNRWA’s budget in 2022.
UNRWA provides basic services for Palestinian families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the country’s creation. The refugees and their descendants are the majority of Gaza’s population.
UN officials have long denied any responsibility for the fact that kilometres of channels for the movement of Hamas fighters, and that it has carried out combat operations built under UNRWA schools. And that hospitals have been used as shelters for terrorists, including hostages they kidnapped in Israel.
The structure of UNRWA is deeply embedded in the Palestinian social framework. Almost all of its 13,000 activists are Palestinians, and 2 vital social systems rest on it. It has been the principal vehicle for the flow of humanitarian aid on which numerous Palestinians live.
Over the decades, UNRWA has become an inextricable part of the corrupt and militant order in Gaza, and the participation of some of its members in terrorist attacks was only the expected climax of a strangely set-up structure.
Since the war began, most of the territory’s 2.3 million people depend on the agency’s programs for “sheer survival,” including food and shelter, Lazzarini said.
A quarter of Gaza’s population is facing starvation as fighting and Israeli restrictions hinder the delivery of aid, which has been well below the daily average of 500 trucks before the war.
Communications Director Juliette Touma warned that the agency would be forced to stop its support in Gaza by the end of February.