The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has said it is “extremely important” to conduct an independent investigation into claims that 12 of its employees were involved in the 7 October Hamas attack against Israel.
Important donors – among them the UK, the United States, Germany and Japan – have announced their suspension of aid to UNRWA following Israel’s allegations.
“We have 33,000 people … so it is extremely important for us to really have an independent investigation into these specific individual cases that Israel brought to our attention,” agency spokesperson Tamara Alrifai said.
“We received allegations from the Israeli government over 12 names in Gaza, we had to check those names against our records of 13,000 staff in Gaza, and we were able to match eight of these names,” Ms Alrifai added.
UNRWA, which provides aid to around two million people in Gaza, announced that it had fired most of the accused employees.
Yesterday, the Israeli government accused the UN agency of being “fundamentally compromised” by “letting its infrastructure be used for Hamas military activity”.
Israel also claimed that UNRWA was “hiring terrorists on a massive scale”, according to government spokesperson Eylon Levy.
He did not provide any evidence for the accusations.
Ms Alrifai said that “15 countries so far have announced freezing their funding contributions to UNRWA”, saying that if donors “maintain their decision, the impact will be catastrophic on the people of Gaza”.
The territory is under siege by Israel and facing a major humanitarian crisis, with entire neighbourhoods destroyed by bombing.
Some 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants have fled their homes, according to the UN.
“The impact will be catastrophic on the people of Gaza right now as the war continues, as the displacement continues, as people are mostly in UNRWA shelters receiving wheat flour from UNRWA to make bread, receiving medical services from UNRWA,” Ms Alrifai said.
But she added that UNRWA received “expressions of support … to the work of the agency” in recent days from some of the donors who had suspended aid.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said over the weekend that Ireland has “no plans” to suspend funding, which he called “vital”.
Nothing can “replace or substitute” the agency, the UN’s co-ordinator for Gaza aid said, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held talks with donor countries.
The heads of the World Health Organization, the UN rights office, UNICEF and the World Food Programme warned that defunding UNRWA risked a “catastrophic” humanitarian collapse in Gaza.
“Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would result in the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, with far-reaching humanitarian and human rights consequences in the occupied Palestinian territory and across the region,” said the statement from heads of organisations that form the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee.
The unprecedented Hamas attack resulted in about 1,140 deaths, mostly civilians, in southern Israel, according to official figures.
Militants also seized 250 hostages, of whom Israel says around 132 remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 people.
Israel responded with a relentless military offensive that has killed at least 26,751 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory.
Israel says UNRWA ‘fundamentally compromised’
Israel has vowed to stop UNRWA’s work in Gaza after the war and doubled down when government spokesman Eylon Levy said the agency “has been fundamentally compromised”.
He accused it of “hiring terrorists on a massive scale, letting its infrastructure be used for Hamas military activity and relying on Hamas for aid distribution in the Gaza Strip”.
UN Gaza aid co-ordinator Sigrid Kaag said earlier “there is no way that any organisation can replace or substitute (the) tremendous capacity, the fabric of UNRWA – (their) ability and their knowledge of the population in Gaza”.
The US, which said it was the largest donor to the agency having given $131 million (€121 million) to UNRWA since October, said it “very much supported” its work.
“There is no other humanitarian player in Gaza who can provide food and water and medicine at the scale that UNRWA does,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
“We want to see that work continued, which is why it is so important that the United Nations take this matter seriously, that they investigate, that there is accountability for anyone who is found to have engaged in wrongdoing.”