The main UN agency in Gaza is in turmoil after Israel accused some of its staff members of involvement in Hamas’ October 7 terror attacks.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) fired several employees in the wake of the allegations, which have not been made public.
UNRWA’s main donor the US is among several countries to pause funding to the organization in the wake of the allegations, which employs around 13,000 people in Gaza, as humanitarian disaster spirals in the besieged Palestinian enclave.
Here’s what we know.
What is UNRWA?
UNRWA was established by the United Nations after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war to provide humanitarian assistance for displaced Palestinians.
The organization characterizes Palestinian refugees as any “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 War.”
Those who fit that definition now number 5.9 million, made up largely of the descendants of original refugees. Israel has rejected the possibility of allowing the displaced Palestinians to return home, arguing that the move would change the country’s Jewish character.
Since its establishment, the United Nations’ General Assembly – a voting body of all member states – has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate. The agency has provided aid to four generations of Palestine refugees, according to its website, covering education, healthcare, camp infrastructure, social services and emergency assistance, including in times of conflict.
At least 152 UNRWA staffers have been killed in Gaza since the Israel-Hamas war began, according to the agency.
What are the allegations?
Details remain scant. Neither Israel nor UNRWA have specified the nature of the alleged involvement of UNRWA employees in the events of October 7.
An Israeli official told CNN on Friday that Israel shared information about 12 staffers allegedly involved in the October 7 attacks both with UNRWA and the US.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has said he received “information about the alleged involvement of several employees.” To protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance in Gaza, he decided “to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth,” according to a statement.
Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror “will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” he added.
In a statement issued Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said nine of the 12 UNRWA staff members at the center of the allegations had been fired. One other was dead and the identities of two others were still “being clarified.”
“Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Guterres said, adding that an independent review is forthcoming.
In addition to the staffers’ alleged October 7 involvement, the Israel Defense Forces on Saturday also alleged that UNRWA facilities were used for “terrorist purposes”, in a statement to CNN on Saturday.
Asked about the claim about UNRWA facilities, the agency told CNN, “We don’t have more information on this at this stage. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (the internal oversight body of the UN) will look into all these allegations as part of the investigation the Commissioner General of UNRWA has requested them to undertake.”
Hamas in an official statement released Saturday criticized the decision to end the employees’ contracts, and accused Israel of trying to undermine UNRWA and other organizations providing humanitarian relief in Gaza.
What’s the current relationship between Israel and the UN?
Israel’s relations with the greater UN have sunk to a historic low in recent months. Senior UN officials have been highly critical of Israel’s war conduct in Gaza, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health authority in the territory. Israeli diplomats meanwhile have been angered by UN calls for ceasefire.
In December, Israeli diplomats lashed out when UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked a rarely used diplomatic tool to bring the conflict before the UN Security Council. In a letter to the 15-member council, Guterres urged the body to “press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe” and unite in a call for a full humanitarian ceasefire.
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, who has argued that a ceasefire “cements Hamas’ control of Gaza,” criticized Guterres for the move, noting that recent wars in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria hadn’t prompted the same response.
The UNRWA allegations on Friday came on the same day that the UN’s top court ordered Israel to act immediately to prevent genocide in Gaza, though it stopped short of calling for a ceasefire.
UNRWA has long been a target of Israeli criticism. Israel has accused the UN agency of anti-Israel incitement, which UNRWA denies. In 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to dismantle the UN body, saying it should be merged with the main UN refugee agency.
In November, an Israeli journalist claimed on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that one of the hostage takers in Gaza was a teacher at an UNRWA-run school. That report was picked up by Israeli news outlets, prompting the UN agency to issue a statement calling for an “immediate stop” to the spreading of “unsubstantiated claims” about the organization, saying they amounted to “misinformation.”
UNRWA has repeatedly denied allegations that its aid is being diverted to Hamas or that it teaches hatred in its schools, and has questioned “the motivation of those who make such claims.” The agency has condemned the Hamas attack on October 7 as “abhorrent.”
How has the world reacted?
Several Western countries announced the suspension of funding for UNRWA in the wake of the allegations. The US State Department on Friday said it had “temporarily paused additional funding” to the agency.
Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands all followed suit.
But other countries have announced they plan to continue funding.
Explaining its decision, Norway’s government on Saturday said “the situation in Gaza is catastrophic, and UNRWA is the most important humanitarian organization there … International support for Palestine is needed now more than ever.”
Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, described the decision to suspend funds as “shameful,” emphasizing that the allegations had emerged on the same day as the International Court of Justice’s ruling.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has called on the countries cutting funding to “immediately retract their decision.” PLO Secretary-General Husseim Al-Sheick said the suspension of funding “entails great political and relief risks.”
UNRWA chief Lazzarini described the funding suspensions as “shocking” and urged them to reconsider. Such decisions threaten the organization’s humanitarian relief for millions of people, he warned.
“It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region,” Lazzarini’s statement read.
“UNRWA shares the list of all its staff with host countries every year, including Israel. The Agency never received any concerns on specific staff members.”
Funding has long been a challenge for UNRWA and the suspension of funding by key backers – however brief – raises question on how it will be able to continue to help people in Gaza amid growing fears of starvation.
The US previously cut support altogether to UNRWA under the presidency of Donald Trump before being restored under Joe Biden.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Mitchell McCluskey, Benjamin Brown, Heather Law, AJ Davis, Ibrahim Hazboun, Rob Iddiols, Amir Tal, Akanksha Sharma, Lauren Izso and Caitlin Hu.