UN agency struggles to serve Gaza as scrutiny mounts over Hamas links

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JERUSALEM – The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, facing explosive allegations of ties to Hamas, is struggling to preserve its reputation and maintain its life-saving operations in Gaza, even as Israel threatens to attack the enclave’s last refuge for displaced civilians.

The UN Relief and Works Agency came under political pressure later on Saturday after Israel said it discovered a tunnel passing under the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City. The Israeli military posted pictures of what it said was an electricity supply hub that powered Hamas’s vast underground network in the area and said “many weapons” had been recovered there.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said Saturday that the agency had no knowledge of the underground tunnel and lacked the “military and security expertise or ability” to conduct military-grade inspections of the building. Israel, he said, had not formally notified UNRWA of the building’s findings, which workers left on October 12 amid Israeli bombardment.

“Oh, you knew,” COGAT, a branch of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, fired back on X. “You choose to ignore the facts so you can try to deny them later.”

UNRWA has been under intense scrutiny since late last month, when Israel said 12 of its staff were involved in the October 7 attack led by Hamas, in which gunmen killed 1,200 people there in southern Israel and hosted more than 250 guests. Six of the group’s operatives were alleged to have entered Israel on October 7 and four were involved in abducting Israelis, according to a dossier compiled by the Israeli government and re-released. -investigated by the Washington Post. The document did not reveal evidence against the accused.

The Israeli document claims that UN staff participated in the October 7 Hamas attack

The claims prompted the United States and Germany, UNRWA’s two biggest donors, to suspend funding along with at least 14 other countries. Amid looming famine in Gaza, the group is trying to stretch dwindling resources past the end of February as it calls on Washington and others to return more than $400 million in suspended currency.

The United States, whose contribution makes up more than 80 percent of that money, has agreed to release the findings of the UN investigation. Israel has not publicly detailed its claims about the workers or officially shared the allegations and supporting evidence with UNRWA, according to the United Nations.

UNRWA’s efforts in Gaza, which include feeding and sheltering hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, are increasingly fragile, Lazzarini said on Friday. Bank of Israel Leumi has frozen UNRWA’s account, he said, and Israel’s finance minister has threatened to suspend the organization’s tax benefits.

A month’s worth will be for 1.1 million Gazans were held up at the southern Israeli port of Ashdod, Lazzarini said, after Israeli authorities told the contractor “not to move, not to handle and not to accept payment” any. “

UNRWA said it has also been unable to support Gazans who are starving in the north since January 23. shoot down a food convoy trying to travel there, according to UNRWA’s Gaza director, Thomas White. The Israeli military has not commented on the incident.

Young Israelis block aid to Gaza while IDF soldiers stand by and watch

There is no clear alternative to UNRWA’s role in Gaza, where more than 28,000 people have been killed during the war, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. World Food Program said at the end of December that 9 out of every 10 people lived on less than one meal a day. Some families have been eating animal food, and many are drinking dirty water. Now, Israel has warned that it plans to carry out military operations in Rafah, where there are about 1.4 million displaced Gazans who have nowhere else to go.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said last week that the group’s work in Gaza is “vital” and that Washington was looking for other donors to make up for the lack of funding.

The European Union, UNRWA’s third largest donor, announced last month that it would not cut funding but called for an investigation into the organization by EU experts. It is unclear whether the review can be completed before the bloc is scheduled to make its next $88 million payment at the end of this month.

Israel’s intelligence prompted the US to quickly cut aid funding to Gaza

Lazzarini visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates last week to seek financial and diplomatic support. He was “cautiously optimistic” that Arab states in the Persian Gulf would help fill the funding gap, he said on Friday, but warned that UNRWA was still on the verge of collapse.

Lazzarini fired 10 of the 12 staff accused in connection with the October 7 attack – the other two were dead – before investigating Israel’s claims, a move he said was necessary to show how seriously UNRWA took the charges.

The United Nations’ internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Audit Services, has launched an investigation, with preliminary findings expected to be delivered to member states in about three weeks, Lazzarini said. Friday.

While the office has worked in conflict zones in Somalia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, its investigators face significant challenges in an enclave under attack, according to Tamara Alrifai, a UNRWA talk in Amman, Jordan.

“Because people are always on the move with multiple movements, with telecommunications being rare, it would be difficult to have the kind of communication that any piece of work, let alone a study of this magnitude, requires. she said.

UNRWA has commissioned its own independent review of agency protocols and policies, to be led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna. The final report is expected to be published by the end of April.

Analysis: UNRWA’s funding freeze comes amid uncertainty over the future of Gaza aid

UNRWA has said it burned through its emergency financial resources after President Donald Trump cut funding in 2018. Although President Biden withdrew support in 2021, the agency has be chronically underfunded.

Now, amid unprecedented need in Gaza, UNRWA says it is working month to month and money is running out fast.

“Our operations across the region will be in serious jeopardy at the end of February,” said Alrifai. “We are trying internally several financial management tactics that will allow services to continue through the month of March.”

Only 3,000 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza are able to work, she said, but all staff there and another 17,000 across the region are still being paid – at least for now .

Payments into a pension fund could be delayed to continue paying salaries immediately, said Alrifai. The organization is also looking to borrow from the UN headquarters in New York.

UNRWA was established in 1949 to assist Palestinians who fled or were uprooted from their homes when Israel was established. Over the decades, the group has taken on many state functions, running schools, medical centers and food aid programs in Palestinian refugee camps that have become urban slums – not just in Gaza. and on the West Bank but also in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Israeli authorities have long accused the group of working with, or at least turning a blind eye to, Hamas operatives in Gaza. UNRWA denies the allegations.

An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, told the Post that the government is exploring “other options to support civilians in Gaza,” but that no plans have been made.

Israeli authorities last week demanded that “responsible” UN agencies take over the UNRWA mission in Gaza, responding to a long-standing demand by some Israeli politicians for the agency. to take apart. But no other UN agency works at UNRWA’s level or has the capacity to replace it, Alrifai said. And organizations cannot unilaterally change the mandate given to them by the United Nations General Assembly.

Inside Gaza, some UNRWA workers fear losing their livelihoods.

“Who will give us promises that none of us will be persecuted under any accusation that Israel and the world consider inconsistent with their standards? ” said one 27-year-old employee, speaking to The Post on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Colleagues were “overwhelmed with anxiety” about losing their wages and felt “under constant scrutiny,” the worker said.

More than 150 UNRWA workers have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to the United Nations, the single largest loss of life in the organization’s history.

Louisa Loveluck in Jerusalem, Karen DeYoung in Washington, Emily Rauhala and Beatriz Ríos in Brussels, Hazem Balousha in Amman and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

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