What is UNRWA, the main aid provider in Gaza that Israel accuses of militant links?

Israel’s claims that 12 U.N. agency employees were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack have prompted several Western countries to cut funding and reignited debate over Gaza’s largest humanitarian aid provider.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, employs thousands of people and provides essential aid and services to millions of people in the Middle East. In Gaza, it was the main provider of food, water and shelter to civilians during the war between Israel and Hamas.

Israel has long spoken out against the agency, accusing it of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas and perpetuating the 75-year-old Palestinian refugee crisis. The Israeli government has accused Hamas and other militant groups of siphoning aid and using UN facilities for military purposes.

UNRWA denies these allegations and says it took swift action against the workers accused of taking part in the attack. The United States and eight other Western countries that together accounted for more than half of UNRWA’s 2022 budget have nonetheless suspended their funding to the organization.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, or 87% of the population, rely on UNRWA services, which will be cut as early as February if funding is not restored.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East was established to provide assistance to the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding the country’s founding.

Palestinians say the refugees and their descendants, who now number nearly six million in the Middle East, have the right to return to their homes.

Israel has refused to do this because if the right of return were fully implemented it would result in a Palestinian majority within its borders. The fate of refugees and their descendants has been one of the thorniest issues in the peace process, which stalled in 2009.

UNRWA runs schools, health clinics, infrastructure projects and aid programs in refugee camps that now resemble dense urban neighborhoods in Gaza, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In Gaza alone, the organization has 13,000 employees, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians.

In Gaza, where some 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, more than 1 million people are sheltering in UNRWA schools and other facilities.

Israel accuses UNRWA of turning a blind eye as Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, diverts aid intended for civilians and fighting from and around UN facilities, several of which were hit during the war. It has also exposed Hamas tunnels running next to or under UNRWA facilities and accuses the agency of teaching hatred of Israel in its schools.

UNRWA denies these allegations. It says it has no ties to Hamas or other militant groups, and that it thoroughly investigates all allegations of misconduct and holds staff accountable. It says it shares lists of all its personnel with Israel and other host countries.

The twelve employees are believed to have taken part in the surprise attack on October 7, in which Hamas fighters from Gaza overran Israel’s extensive border defenses. Other militants joined in the subsequent destruction through nearby communities, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians. About 250 others, including children, were captured and dragged into Gaza.

UN chief Guterres said nine of the accused UNRWA staff had been immediately dismissed, one had been confirmed dead and the other two had yet to be identified. He said everyone will be held accountable, including through criminal charges.

Neither the details of the allegations nor the evidence supporting them have been made public.

UNRWA condemned the October 7 attack and called for the release of all hostages. Earlier this month, before the latest allegations, UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini announced an external review of the agency to determine which allegations are “true or false” and “what is politically motivated.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the agency should be closed. But his government has continued to allow UNRWA to operate in the West Bank and Gaza, providing basic services that might otherwise be Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power. No other entity could quickly fill the gap if UNRWA were to cease operations.

The United States, the first country to suspend funding, is UNRWA’s largest donor, providing the country with $340 million in 2022. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland have also provided assistance suspended .

The nine countries together provided almost 60% of UNRWA’s budget in 2022. It was not immediately clear when and how the suspension of aid would affect the organization’s day-to-day operations. Norway and Ireland said they would continue to fund UNRWA, while other donors have not yet made a decision.

The war has plunged Gaza into a serious humanitarian crisis. One in four Palestinians in the area faces famine, according to UN officials, who say relief operations are being hampered by the fighting and Israeli restrictions.

“Our humanitarian operation, on which two million people depend as a lifeline in Gaza, is collapsing,” Lazzarini wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

He was shocked that countries would suspend aid “based on alleged behavior of a few individuals, and as the war continues, the needs become greater and greater.” & famine threatens.”

According to Gaza’s health ministry, more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, most of them women and children, and more than 64,400 others have been injured. It does not distinguish between civilians and fighters in its toll, but says most of the dead were women and children.

The death toll includes more than 150 UNWRA staff, the largest number of aid workers the UN has lost in a single conflict.


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