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Displaced Palestinians receive bags of flour at the UNRWA school in Rafah, southern Gaza Alamy Stock Photo
Gaza

US Secretary of State urges UN agency to address claims of staff involvement in Hamas attack

UNRWA said Israel had provided the agency with information about the alleged involvement of several employees in the 7 October attack.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 29th 2024, 9:46 PM

US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken has urged the UN agency for Palestinian refugees to address allegations staff members were involved in attacking Israel but distanced himself from calls for the body’s end.

The United States, the main contributor to the agency known as UNRWA, on Friday said it was suspending funding after Israel charged that several staff members took part in the 7 October attack on Israel that has prompted an overwhelming counter-operation.

Blinken called the allegations “deeply, deeply troubling” and said the United States would look very closely to “make sure that this is fully and thoroughly investigated, that there’s clear accountability.”

“At the same time,” he said, “UNRWA has played and continues to play an absolutely indispensable role in trying to make sure that men, women and children who so desperately need assistance in Gaza actually get it.”

“No one else can play the role that UNRWA’s been playing, certainly not in the near term. No one has the reach, the capacity, the structure to do what UNRWA’s been doing,” he said.

“From our perspective, it’s important — more than an important, imperative — that that role continues.

“That only underscores the importance of UNRWA tackling this as quickly as effectively and as thoroughly as possible,” he said.

UNRWA said it has acted promptly over allegations but that cuts in funding will affect ordinary Palestinians.

The UN agency has long been in the crosshairs of Israel, which accuses it of systematically going against Israeli interests.

‘Urgent’ audit

Meanwhile, the EU today demanded an “urgent” audit of UNRWA and said it is reviewing funding.

The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said on Friday that Israel had provided the agency with information about the alleged involvement of several employees in the attack. 

He confirmed the staff in question have been fired and an investigation is taking place. 

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer has told reporters that an audit must be led by European Commission-appointed experts and conducted alongside a UN investigation into the claims.

“What is absolutely clear is that these actions are urgent. They are important and they should be launched without any delay,” Mamer said.

The European Union is one of UNRWA’s top donors.

A commission statement said the EU executive “will determine upcoming funding decisions for UNRWA in light of the very serious allegations made on 24 January relating to the involvement of UNRWA staff in the heinous 7 October attacks”.

It said that no additional funding to UNRWA “is foreseen until the end of February”.

However, it added that humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank “will continue unabated through partner organisations”.

Over the weekend, numerous countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Japan, suspended further funding to the UN agency.

The European Commission said it “will review the matter in light of the outcome of the investigation announced by the UN and the actions it will take”.

Allegations

Israel has said it would seek to stop UNRWA from operating in Gaza after the conflict.

Hamas urged the international community to ignore Israel’s “threats”, while the Palestinian Authority said the agency needed “maximum support” from donors.

An Israeli document, which has been shared with US officials and was obtained by The Associated Press, lists 12 people, their alleged roles in the attack, and their 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 was a social worker. Seven of the employees were accused of crossing into Israel on 7 October.

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.

In a statement, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it is “deeply alarmed” by the decision of some countries to suspend their funding to UNRWA.

It said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has reached “catastrophic levels” and that any additional limitations on aid “will result in more deaths and suffering”.

“Humanitarian organisations are already grappling to meet even a fraction of the urgent needs in Gaza,” the organisation said.

“Much more aid is required to meet those needs, not less. The consequences these cuts in funding will have on the ground contradict the provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice on Friday (26 January), which include immediate measures to ensure sufficient humanitarian aid flows into Gaza.”

Irish response

On Saturday, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said Ireland was not withdrawing its funding. 

Speaking today, Martin said in relation to today’s announcement by the EU that he has no issue with the bloc reviewing the situation in light of what happened “once the aid keeps flowing”.

Martin said he will be advocating that all countries, including the US, restore support to UNRWA.

He added that he hopes US aid is restored ahead of Ireland’s visit to the White House on St Patrick’s Day.

Martin said there needs to be a sense of perspective on the issue, in terms of what has been alleged and the number of staff involved.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Martin said he had full confidence in Lazzarini and his decision to “immediately suspend” UNRWA workers “suspected of participation in the heinous attacks of October 7, to investigate thoroughly and show zero tolerance on terror”.

“UNRWA’s 13,000 employees provide life saving assistance to 2.3m people and at incredible personal cost – with over 100 staff killed in last 4 months,” Martin said. 

Martin said that Ireland provided €18 million in 2023 and will continue our support in 2024.

Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan said today that “any decision to suspend humanitarian funding to UNRWA in Gaza is unconscionable and is tantamount to collective punishment”. 

gaza-27th-jan-2024-palestinians-are-seen-at-a-makeshift-camp-in-the-southern-gaza-strip-city-of-rafah-on-jan-27-2024-credit-rizek-abdeljawadxinhuaalamy-live-news Palestinians are seen at a makeshift camp in Rafah Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Hostage release

Around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Hamas’s 7 October attack in southern Israel, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants of Hamas, considered a “terrorist” group by the US and EU, also seized 250 hostages, of whom Israel says around 132 remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 dead captives.

Israel’s relentless military offensive has since killed at least 26,422 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

CIA chief William Burns met top Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials in Paris yesterday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the talks were “constructive” but pointed to “significant gaps which the parties will continue to discuss this week”.

US President Joe Biden sent Burns to try to negotiate the release of remaining hostages in exchange for a ceasefire, a security source confirmed to AFP.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the negotiators were discussing a deal under which Israel would suspend the war for about two months in return for the release of over 100 hostages.

Reuters today reported that Hamas reiterated its view that releasing hostages it is holding would require a guaranteed end to the Israeli offensive in Gaza and withdrawal of all invasion forces. 

“The success of the Paris meeting is dependent on the Occupation (Israel) agreeing to end the comprehensive aggression on Gaza Strip,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

Additional reporting by © AFP 2024 and Jane Matthews