Advertisement

UN agency probes staff suspected of role in Oct 7 attacks on Israel

File Photo: Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) -The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said on Friday it had opened an investigation into several employees suspected of involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel by Hamas and that it had severed ties with those staff members.

"The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7," said Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General.

"To protect the agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay."

Lazzarini did not disclose the number of employees allegedly involved in the attacks, nor the nature of their alleged involvement. He said, however, that "any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror" would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy accused UNRWA of announcing the news while the world's attention was focused on the World Court ordering Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians and do more to help civilians in Gaza.

"Any other day, this would have been a major headline: Israel submits evidence of UN employees' complicity with Hamas," Levy wrote on X.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has been briefed about the allegations, his spokesperson said.

"The Secretary-General is horrified by this news," said spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.

Dujarric added that the U.N. chief had asked Lazzarini to conduct a probe to ensure that any UNRWA employee shown to have participated or abetted the Oct. 7 attacks be terminated immediately and referred for potential criminal prosecution.

"An urgent and comprehensive independent review of UNRWA will be conducted," Dujarric added.

U.S. HALTS ADDITIONAL FUNDING

UNRWA, whose biggest donors in 2022 included the United States, Germany and the European Union, has repeatedly said its capacity to render humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza is on the verge of collapse.

The U.S. State Department said it was extremely troubled by the allegations, which it said pertained to 12 UNRWA employees. It said it would provide no additional funding to the agency until the allegations were addressed.

"The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them," spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the U.S. decision was an important step toward holding UNRWA accountable.

"Major changes need to take place so that international efforts, funds, and humanitarian initiatives don't fuel Hamas terrorism and the murder of Israelis," he wrote on X.

The U.S. State Department had recently praised UNRWA's work, and the administration of Joe Biden restored funding that was halted during Donald Trump's tenure.

In response to the allegations against UNRWA employees, U.S. Senate Republicans were critical of Biden's move to fund the agency.

"For years I have warned the Biden administration about resuming funding to UNRWA, which has a history of employing people connected to terrorist movements like Hamas," Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Friday.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said it would "assess further steps and draw lessons based on the result of the full and comprehensive investigation".

UNRWA, established in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war, provides services including schooling, primary healthcare and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Israeli authorities, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have accused the agency of fuelling anti-Israeli incitement, allegations it denies.

UNRWA has provided aid and used its facilities to shelter people fleeing bombardment and a ground offensive launched by Israel in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attacks, in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage.

Israel's offensive has laid waste to much of the densely populated Gaza Strip and killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in the territory.

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by Emily Rose, Nidal Al Mughrabi, Michelle Nichols, Patricia Zengerle and Emma Farge; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)