UNRWA: Gaza aid agency says it is ‘extremely desperate’ after funding halted

Palestinians receive flour bags distributed by UNRWA in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 28 January 2024
Image caption,UNRWA has been distributing flour to Palestinians in Gaza

By Robert Plummer

BBC News

More countries have halted funding to the largest UN agency operating in Gaza, as the crisis deepens over the alleged role of some staff in the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel.

Japan and Austria said they were suspending payments to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

The US, UK, Germany and Italy are also among those who have suspended funding.

UNRWA has told the BBC it is “extremely desperate” and that “the humanitarian needs in Gaza are growing by the hour”.

The agency has sacked several of its staff over allegations they were involved on 7 October, when Hamas gunmen infiltrated Israel, killing about 1,300 people – mainly civilians – and taking about 250 others back to Gaza as hostages.

More than 26,000 people – mostly women and children – have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched a major military operation in response, the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says. Another 1.7 million people have fled their homes, with many of them sheltering at UNRWA facilities.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said he is “horrified” by the accusations, but has appealed to donor countries to “guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations”.

In a statement on Sunday, he said: “Of the 12 people implicated, nine were immediately identified and terminated by the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini; one is confirmed dead and the identity of the two others is being clarified.”

But he said Gaza should not be penalised.

An UNRWA spokesperson said that if funding was not resumed, the agency would not be able to continue its operations beyond the end of February.

Announcing its decision to suspend payment, Japan’s foreign ministry said late on Sunday that it was “extremely concerned about the alleged involvement of UNRWA staff members in the terror attack on Israel”.

It added that it had been “strongly urging” UNRWA to investigate the allegations “in a prompt and complete manner”.

UNRWA donors

Japan is the sixth-largest donor to the agency, according to UNRWA’s 2022 figures.

On Monday, Austria said it was following suit, calling for “a comprehensive, swift and complete investigation into the allegations”.

Juliette Touma, the director of communications at UNRWA, said in a BBC interview that the allegations were “extremely serious” and that Mr Lazzarini had taken an “extraordinary measure” in immediately dismissing the staff members in question.

“We are extremely desperate. It has come at a time when the humanitarian needs in Gaza are growing by the hour,” she said, adding that she had visited the territory herself last week.

“People continue to be displaced. People are hungry. The clock is ticking fast towards famine.

“We are doing everything possible to avert us from getting towards famine. But this lack of funding that we have been faced with now, when at least 10 of the largest donors have put a temporary pause on the funding, this is going to have very, very serious repercussions on what is, right now, the largest humanitarian operation in Gaza.”

She said UNRWA had not seen the evidence, but the allegations were being investigated by the UN’s oversight office in New York.

On Friday, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister told the BBC that the 7 October Hamas attacks had involved “people who are on their [UNRWA] salaries”.

Mark Regev said there was also information showing teachers working in UNRWA schools had “openly celebrated” the https://perjalananini.com/ 7 October attacks.

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