UN chief urges donors to reconsider UNRWA funding withdrawal

António Guterres says loss of funding from US and others means aid into Gaza for whole of this month cannot be guaranteed

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, has appealed to the 10 donor countries that have withdrawn funding from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees to reconsider, saying the agency and Palestinians in desperate need should not be penalised due to the alleged acts of a dozen staff.

Guterres said nine UNRWA staff had already been dismissed for alleged involvement in Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October and any UN employee involved in acts of terror would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

He said the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the highest investigative body in the UN system, had been asked to mount an inquiry.

Israel’s foreign ministry has vowed that UNRWA will play no role in Gaza when the conflict ends. UNRWA has 13,000 staff in Gaza and educates 30,000 children.

Israel formally handed information to the UNRWA commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, last Sunday alleging that as many 12 UNRWA staff had been involved in the 7 October attack.

Lazzarini immediately flew to New York to discuss the allegations with Guterres before informing key donors in the middle of the week and making an announcement on Friday, just as the international court of justice was delivering its verdict on South Africa’s request for a provisional order directing Israel to allow aid into Gaza.

UN officials had hoped to prevent a donor collapse by being seen to be acting pre-emptively and swiftly. But the US responded to the revelations by suspending its UNRWA funding, and since then nine other countries have followed suit, including the UK and Germany. The US was the agency’s largest bilateral donor in 2022, contributing more than $340m.

France on Sunday became the latest country to register its disapproval, saying it would review whether to provide further funds when they are due in the summer.

UNRWA is an unusual agency in that it does not have large assets and runs a hand-to-mouth operation, even though it covers five countries and employs 40,000 staff, including 13,000 in Gaza.

Lazzarini said: “Our humanitarian operation, on which 2 million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing. I am shocked such decisions are taken based on alleged behaviour of a few individuals and as the war continues, needs are deepening and famine looms. Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us.”

Guterres said the loss of funding meant the UN could not guarantee aid into Gaza for the whole of this month. “Two million civilians in Gaza depend on critical assistance from UNRWA for their daily survival, but current UNRWA funding will not allow it to meet all needs in February,” he said.

The aid crisis has been compounded by families of Israeli hostages for the past five days blocking the key aid crossing at Kerem Shalom until the hostages are released. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said on Saturday that the ICJ ruling required him to open the crossing. He added: “Without minimal aid to Gaza, we cannot complete the task and finish the war.”

UN officials pointed out that on 17 January UNRWA announced it was launching an independent review by external experts that “will help UNRWA strengthen its framework for the strict adherence of all staff to the humanitarian principles”. The review was to examine a steady drumbeat of claims such including UNRWA staff allegedly presiding over an antisemitic education curriculum.

Ireland and Norway are two countries that have expressed horror at the allegations but rejected suspending funding, saying UNRWA acted swiftly as soon as the staff were identified. “Donors, do not starve children for the sins of a few individual aid workers,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The EU has expressed its concern but not yet suspended aid.

A UN-appointed expert on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, warned that the funding cuts meant famine was now inevitable in Gaza.

Arab leaders have also expressed their alarm, and there will now be pressure on them to fill the funding hole. The countries that have suspended aid have not specified what more UNRWA should do to reclaim their confidence, except to demand further clarifications.

Although aid can reach Gaza through other agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the key infrastructure for delivering aid in Gaza is through UNRWA.

The near collapse in UNRWA funding came after the ICJ on Friday issued its order requiring Israel to “take immediate and effective measures immediately to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance”.

The effect of the allegations in the US media was to shift the spotlight rapidly away from the ICJ ruling on Israel’s control of aid flows and on to the credibility of the main organisation delivering aid. But UNRWA is not alleging that Israel held back its evidence so that it emerged at the same time as the ICJ ruling.

Israel has long wanted UNRWA dismantled, regarding it as too close to militant groups administering Gaza and more broadly as creating a culture of dependency by giving refugee status to the sons and daughters of refugees. The string of media allegations about UNRWA staff being complicit in terrorism led to Lazzarini setting up the 17 January review.

According to Israeli sources, the allegations came from Israeli intelligence based on interviews with some of those captured during the 7 October operation. UNRWA supplies Israel with the names of its 13,000 staff, so cross-referencing names would have been possible. It is even alleged that UN vehicles were present at the scene of the massacre.

It is inevitable that many of the 13,000 staff drawn from Gaza are hostile to Israel, and unofficial watchdogs such as UN Watch have repeatedly accused UNRWA of allowing its schools to teach anti-Israeli propaganda. UNRWA in the past three months has been a huge thorn in Israel’s side by documenting the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the obstacles that Israel has placed in the way of aid distribution.

Israeli ministers moved swiftly at the weekend to try to exploit the allegations about specific staff members to build the case for UNRWA’s permanent dismantling.

Israel sharply criticised Lazzarini. “Mr Lazzarini, please resign,” the foreign minister, Israel Katz, wrote on X, adding that UNRWA would play no role in the “day after” the war in Gaza.

The Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy accused UNRWA of being a “Hamas front”. “It literally covers Hamas,” he said on X.

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defence minister, tweeted: “Major changes need to take place so that international efforts, funds and humanitarian initiatives don’t fuel Hamas terrorism and the murder of Israelis. Terrorism under the guise of humanitarian work is a disgrace to the UN and the principles it claims to represent.”

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, said: “How symbolic that precisely on International Holocaust Remembrance Day it was proven what we have been claiming for years: that UNRWA employees are collaborators of the terrorist organisation Hamas.”