Friday, June 14, 2024

What we know about Israel’s allegations against UN staffers in Gaza

The main UN agency in Gaza is in turmoil after Israel accused some of its staff members of involvement in Hamas’ October 7 terror attacks.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) fired several employees in the wake of the allegations, which have not been made public.

Following Israel’s allegations, UNRWA’s main donor, the United States, and a growing number of countries have paused funding to the organization, which employs about 13,000 people in Gaza, as the humanitarian disaster spirals in the besieged Palestinian enclave.

Here’s what we know.

What is UNRWA?

UNRWA was established by the United Nations after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war to provide humanitarian assistance for displaced Palestinians.

The organization characterizes Palestinian refugees as any “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 War.”

Those who fit that definition now number 5.9 million, made up largely of the descendants of original refugees. Israel has rejected the possibility of allowing the displaced Palestinians to return home, arguing that the move would change the country’s Jewish character.

Since its establishment, the United Nations’ General Assembly – a voting body of all member states – has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate. The agency has provided aid to four generations of Palestine refugees, according to its website, covering education, health care, camp infrastructure, social services and emergency assistance, including in times of conflict.

At least 152 UNRWA staffers have been killed in Gaza since the Israel-Hamas war began, according to the agency.

What are the allegations?

Details remain scant. Neither Israel nor UNRWA have specified the nature of the alleged involvement of UNRWA employees in the events of October 7.

An Israeli official told CNN on Friday that Israel shared information about 12 staffers allegedly involved in the October 7 attacks both with UNRWA and the US.

The head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, met with senior US officials on Friday and gave them “specific names and which organizations they are affiliated with, whether Hamas or PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) or others, and what exactly they did on October 7,” the Israeli official said.

“We showed them that we had solid intelligence from difference sources.”

An Israeli official familiar with how the intelligence was gathered said it was taken from Hamas computers and documents confiscated during operations in Gaza, and from interrogations of detainees and alleged terrorists.

Israeli officials say some of the attackers who were killed or detained on October 7 had UNRWA IDs on them. CNN was not shown the IDs or other intelligence.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has said he received “information about the alleged involvement of several employees.” To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance in Gaza, he decided “to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth,” a statement said.

Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror “will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” he added.

In a statement Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said nine of the 12 UNRWA staff members at the center of the allegations had been fired. One other was dead and the identities of two others were still “being clarified.”

“Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Guterres said, adding that an independent review is forthcoming.

In addition to the staffers’ alleged October 7 involvement, the Israel Defense Forces on Saturday alleged in a statement to CNN that UNRWA facilities were used for “terrorist purposes.”

Asked about that claim, the agency told CNN, “We don’t have more information on this at this stage. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (the internal oversight body of the UN) will look into all these allegations as part of the investigation the Commissioner General of UNRWA has requested them to undertake.”

In a statement Saturday, Hamas criticized the decision to end the employees’ contracts, and accused Israel of trying to undermine UNRWA and other organizations providing humanitarian relief in Gaza.

How is Israel’s relationship with the UN?

Israel’s relations with the UN have sunk to a historic low in recent months.

Senior UN officials have been highly critical of Israel’s war conduct in Gaza, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health authority in the territory. Israeli diplomats meanwhile have been angered by UN calls for a ceasefire.

In December, Israeli diplomats lashed out when UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked a rarely used diplomatic tool to bring the conflict before the UN Security Council. In a letter to the 15-member council, Guterres urged the body to “press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe” and unite in a call for a full humanitarian ceasefire.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, who has argued that a ceasefire “cements Hamas’ control of Gaza,” criticized Guterres for the move, noting that recent wars in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria hadn’t prompted the same response.

The Israeli allegations against UNRWA on Friday came on the same day that the UN’s top court ordered Israel to act immediately to prevent genocide in Gaza.

UNRWA has long been a target of Israeli criticism. Israel has accused the UN agency of anti-Israel incitement, which UNRWA denies. In 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to dismantle the UN body, saying it should be merged with the main UN refugee agency.

In November, an Israeli journalist claimed on social media platform X that one of the hostage takers in Gaza was a teacher at an UNRWA-run school. That report was picked up by Israel news outlets, prompting the UN agency call for an “immediate stop” to the spreading of “unsubstantiated claims” about the organization.

UNRWA has repeatedly denied allegations that its aid is being diverted to Hamas or that it teaches hatred in its schools, and has questioned “the motivation of those who make such claims.” The agency has condemned the Hamas attack on October 7 as “abhorrent.”

How has the world reacted?

Several Western countries announced the suspension of funding for UNRWA in the wake of the allegations. The US State Department on Friday said it had “temporarily paused additional funding” to the agency.

Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands all followed suit. Japan said Monday it has suspended funding “for the time being.”

But other countries, including Ireland and Norway, said they would continue funding UNRWA.

Norway’s government on Saturday said “the situation in Gaza is catastrophic, and UNRWA is the most important humanitarian organization there … International support for Palestine is needed now more than ever.”

In a statement Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged countries suspending funding for UNRWA to reconsider.

“Such positions, if maintained, would disproportionately punish millions of our people without just cause,” Abbas said, according to WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency.

Abbas accused Israel of acting out of hostility for the UN agency, saying: “Officials in the Israeli government openly expressed that there would be no role for UNRWA, revealing the true motive behind this campaign.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz suggested Friday that Israel will seek to stop UNRWA from operating in post-war Gaza.

UNRWA chief Lazzarini described the funding suspensions as “shocking” and urged donor countries to reconsider. Such decisions threaten the organization’s humanitarian relief for millions of people, he warned.

Funding has long been a challenge for UNRWA and the suspension of funding by key backers – however brief – raises question on how it will be able to continue to help people in Gaza amid growing fears of starvation.

The US previously cut support altogether to UNRWA under the presidency of Donald Trump before being restored under Joe Biden.

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