The decision by several Western countries to suspend aid to the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency is a “collective punishment,” said the head of the UN Palestine Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), while UN chief Antonio Guterres joined donor countries in doing so called for maintaining urgently needed Gaza aid.
UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said he was shocked that such decisions were taken while “famine” was looming in Gaza, devastated by nearly four months of relentless Israeli bombardment that killed more than 26,000 people.
The agency, with its 13,000 employees in Gaza, is the main organization helping the people of Gaza amid the humanitarian catastrophe. More than two million of the 2.3 million people in the besieged enclave rely on UNRWA for their “mere survival,” including food and shelter, Lazzarini said, warning that this lifeline could “collapse at any time.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also joined Lazzarini's call on Sunday and appealed to donor states to continue to support the UN agency carrying out aid operations in Gaza. “The urgent needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”
Guterres said UN staff involved in “terrorist acts” will be held accountable, but added that “the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in one of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be punished .” “.
About 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were killed and about 240 were captured in the Hamas attack.
Nine UNRWA staff were fired
Nine of 12 UNRWA staffers accused of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel have been fired, according to the UN chief. One was confirmed dead and the identities of the other two were being ascertained, he said.
“The Secretariat stands ready to cooperate with a competent authority capable of prosecuting the individuals in accordance with the Secretariat’s normal procedures for such cooperation.”
The United Nations said Friday it was investigating several agency employees over the allegations.
But Israel has continued to attack the U.N. agency, and Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for Lazzarini's resignation on Saturday.
Senior Palestinian officials and Hamas criticized the decision, which they said “carries major political and humanitarian aid risks.”
“At this special time and in view of the ongoing aggression against the Palestinian people, we need the maximum support for this international organization and must not stop its support and assistance,” wrote Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary General Hussein al-Sheikh to X and called on countries to “immediately reverse their decision.”
Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesman, says there is a “coordinated political attack” on the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
“The Israelis have declared that they cannot win the war against Gaza unless UNRWA is disbanded. What clearer signal do you want?” he told Al Jazeera.
UNRWA's life-saving assistance is about to end after countries decided to cut their funding to the organization.
Our humanitarian response, which two million people in Gaza rely on as a lifeline, is collapsing. I am shocked that such decisions are made based on the alleged behavior of a…
— Philippe Lazzarini (@UNLazzarini) January 27, 2024
Western countries stop their aid
The United States, which said 12 agency employees were under investigation, immediately stopped funding, followed by several other countries, including Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland and Italy.
On Sunday, the French Foreign Ministry announced that Paris had not planned any new payments to support UNRWA for the first quarter of this year and would decide in due course what measures to take together with the UN and its other main donors.
Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, stressed that the 27-member bloc would “assess further steps and draw lessons based on the results of the full and comprehensive investigation.”
“While I understand their concerns – I was horrified by these allegations myself – I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to at least ensure the continuity of UNRWA operations,” Guterres said.
Meanwhile, there are reports that US negotiators are making progress on a possible agreement under which Israel would suspend its military operations against Hamas for two months in return for the release of more than 100 prisoners. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the reports.
CIA Director Bill Burns is expected to meet in France on Sunday with Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, David Barnea, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for talks on the secret negotiations.
Many are starving as the clock ticks toward impending famine. @UNRWA operates shelters for over 1 million people and provides food and basic medical care even at the height of hostilities. https://t.co/lPEdNQtq8H
— UNRWA (@UNRWA) January 27, 2024
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire after Israeli attacks destroyed large parts of the Palestinian enclave and displaced almost 85 percent of the territory's population.
There are few, low-capacity health facilities in the enclave and UNRWA facilities, mainly schools, are often used as shelters by displaced people.
Gunness, the former UNRWA chief, said the UN agency had just weeks left before it ran out of money for its vital relief work saving Palestinian lives in Gaza.
“My message to the Arab world, especially the Gulf, is: Where are you? Because they make billions every day from oil revenues. A tiny fraction of these oil revenues would cause UNRWA's financial problems to disappear overnight. “This unreasonable gap that these Western countries have left would be filled very quickly,” Gunness told Al Jazeera.
“Some of the most desperate people in the Middle East are now at risk of starvation, they are facing famine, and Arab states must rise to the challenge.”
Meanwhile, Israel has continued to carry out attacks on the central and southern parts of Khan Younis, with Gaza's Health Ministry reporting the killing of 174 Palestinians in the last 24 hours.
Nasser Hospital, the largest health facility in southern Gaza, has been under Israeli siege for five days and is on the verge of collapse. Doctors at the hospital warn that it will not be able to function for much longer due to a lack of care.