UN secretary general pleads with countries to restore UNRWA funding

UN says it will hold to account any UNRWA staff member who participated in October 7th attacks

United Nations chief António Guterres on Sunday made an urgent plea to countries that halted funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, over the weekend to reverse their decision. “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he said, promising to hold to account any UNRWA staff member who participated in the October 7th attacks perpetrated by militants and other residents of Gaza in southern Israel.

Of 12 people identified, nine have been dismissed, one was killed in the war and the fate of the remaining two was unclear, he said.

The affair began after Israel Defence Forces intelligence chief Aharon Haliva met with senior US officials and revealed information that ostensibly indicted UNRWA workers from Gaza. Hours later the Biden administration announced it was suspending its funding of UNRWA pending an investigation, and at least nine other countries took similar action.

Some of the Israeli intelligence came from GoPro cameras worn by Hamas gunmen themselves who posted their actions. Some of the perpetrators were positively identified as UNRWA employees, according to Israel. Others were identified after being captured by Israeli troops and they revealed under interrogation that they worked for UNRWA.


The Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, was founded in 1949, working in Gaza, the West Bank and other Middle East countries where Palestinian refugees live where it operates schools and medical and aid distribution facilities.

Israel, and particularly the right-wing in Israel, has been critical of UNRWA for years, accusing the organisation of perpetuating the refugee problem and “Palestinian victimhood”, and preaching hatred and anti-Semitism in Palestinians schools. Israel claims many hundreds of Hamas members work for UNRWA, and officials also claimed that UNRWA sites were used by militants in the war.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was a structural relationship between UNRWA and Hamas, and it was not just a matter of a few bad apples. The names provided were just the “tip of the iceberg”.

UNRWA sources said the organisation would not address the specific allegations made against its employees until investigations into the allegations were completed.

The sources said it was not yet clear to what extent the freezing of funds would impact on the organisation, but they expressed serious concern about possible consequences. Close to 60 per cent of UNRWA funds are already frozen and more states are expected to cut donations in the coming days.

The Palestinian foreign ministry criticised what it described as an “Israeli campaign against UNRWA”. Hamas condemned the decision to terminate workers’ contracts “based on information sourced with the Zionist enemy”.

UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said: “It is shocking to see a suspension of funds in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff.”

Jordanian foreign minister Ayman al-Safadi, after speaking with Mr Lazzarini, said UNRWA should not undergo a “collective punishment” just because of allegations against 12 employees. “The international community must continue to support UNRWA to prevent hunger in Gaza.”

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Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem