TOI STAFF and JACOB MAGID
Israel will seek to stop the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees from operating in Gaza after the war, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Saturday, after UNRWA fired several staff members for their alleged involvement in Hamas’s murderous October 7 onslaught on southern Israel.
The foreign ministry aims to ensure “that UNRWA will not be a part of the day after,” Katz said on X, formerly Twitter.
Katz added that he would try to gather support for the move from the United States, European Union and other major donors to the agency, several of whom have suspended funding in the wake of the revelations.
“We have been warning for years: UNRWA perpetuates the refugee issue, obstructs peace, and serves as a civilian arm of Hamas in Gaza,” Katz wrote in a rare public statement on Shabbat.
“UNRWA is not the solution – many of its employees are Hamas affiliates with murderous ideologies, aiding in terror activities and preserving its authority,” Katz said.
He also demanded that the UN “take immediate personal actions” against the UNRWA leadership.
Hamas on Saturday slammed Israeli “threats” against UNRWA, urging the UN and other international organizations not to “cave in to the threats and blackmail.”
UNRWA said Friday it had fired “several” employees accused by Israel of involvement in Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern communities.
The decision was taken “to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance,” said UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini.
“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” he said.
Israeli authorities had provided information about the staff members’ alleged involvement, he said.
A senior Israeli official told the Axios news site that the Shin Bet and the IDF provided information that pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers along with the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 terror onslaught.
“This was strong and corroborated intelligence,” the official told Axios. “A lot of the intelligence is a result of interrogations of militants who were arrested during the October 7 attack.”
UN chief Antonio Guterres “is horrified” by the accusations and an “urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA will be conducted,” said his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
The US State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations and had “temporarily paused additional funding” while it reviewed the claims and the UN’s plan to address concerns.
Canada took similar measures Friday, halting funding to the organization and saying it was “deeply troubled by the allegations relating to some UNRWA employees.”
Australia said that it would “temporarily pause disbursement of recent funding.”
“Australia is deeply concerned by allegations UNRWA staff may have been involved in the abhorrent October 7 terror attacks,” Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong wrote on Twitter, also noting the “vital life saving” work by the agency.
Britain, Finland and Italy followed suit on Saturday.
The US was the agency’s biggest bilateral donor in 2022, contributing more than $340 million, according to UNRWA’s website.
While the UNRWA statement did not specify how many staffers it had fired, the US statement revealed that 12 employees “may have been involved.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Thursday with Guterres “to emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter,” the statement said.
The statement underlined that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support.
“Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures.”
The State Department added that the US is in touch with Israel for more information.
The EU’s top diplomat said he was also “extremely concerned” by the allegations and that the bloc is in touch with UNRWA, but didn’t announce a similar halt in funding.
“We are in contact with UNRWA, expect it to provide full transparency on the allegations and to take immediate measures against staff involved,” Josep Borrell said in a statement, while pledging to “assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation.”
Right-wing pro-Israel groups in the US as well as Republicans had long argued for defunding the agency, saying that its near uniqueness in the world — granting refugee status not just to the first generation of refugees but to their descendants — perpetuated the conflict and a culture of dependence among Palestinians.
Israel’s relationship with the agency, even under the most hawkish of governments, was more ambivalent. Israeli officials believed the agency perpetuated the conflict but also saw the relief the agency provided as a means of keeping the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, from exploding into chaos. UNRWA also provides relief to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The outbreak of war deteriorated relations between Israel and UNRWA. The agency, in sometimes strident tones, said Israel was targeting civilian targets, including its schools and its first responder stations. Israel said UNRWA was, willfully or under threat, providing cover for Hamas terrorists.
The unprecedented October 7 Hamas terror onslaught saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and seizing over 250 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians; 132 hostages are still held in Gaza.
Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign, which the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says has killed at least 26,000 Palestinians. The figures are unverified and are believed to include close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel said it has killed during fighting in the Strip, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Over 200 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza fighting.
(Source: The Times of Israel)