On Friday, the United Nations fired 12 of its employees in Gaza and began an investigation into them after accusations by Israel that they had helped plan and participated in the October 7 terrorist attack that left some 1,200 Israelis dead and more than 240 captured.
The workers, all men employed by the U.N. agency that helps Palestinians, known by the acronym UNRWA, are subject to a criminal investigation, two U.N. officials said.
“UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks,” said Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s director. “Any UNRWA employee who has been involved in acts of terrorism will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”
Furthermore, a senior UN official briefed on the allegations called them “extremely serious and horrific.”
UNRWA has long denied Israel’s claims that it fuels anti-Israel incitement in Gaza. But he took a very different approach to the most serious allegations on Friday, just days after Israel presented them to the agency.
The allegations quickly led the United States to temporarily suspend funding to the organization. UNRWA, which provides social services in the Gaza Strip, has been the main agency overseeing the distribution of aid to Gazans amid a dire humanitarian crisis in the territory that has worsened during months of war since the attack. October 7.
“The United States is extremely concerned about allegations that 12 UNRWA employees may have been involved in the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel on October 7,” the State Department said in a statement.
The United States is the agency’s largest donor, contributing $340 million in 2022 and several hundred million dollars in 2023.
Three Israeli defense officials said military intelligence officials collected a huge amount of information after Oct. 7, and in the past two weeks compared it with a second set of intelligence that solidified an assessment that UNRWA employees had been involved in the attack.
UNRWA was created to provide aid to millions of Palestinians across the Middle East whose families fled or were forced from their property during the wars surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Since Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then ousted to a rival Gaza faction a year later, The group, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and other countries, ceded many of its civilian responsibilities to UNRWA.
The agency employed about 13,000 workers, most of them Palestinians, before the war began.
Israel and the UN have accused each other of acting in bad faith since Israel launched its war in Gaza following the Hamas-led attack on October 7. The UN has accused Israel of delaying the delivery of humanitarian aid to the embattled enclave, and Israel has said the world body has promoted Hamas propaganda.
Such recriminations, however, are less politically sensitive than the accusation that aid workers may have participated in an act of terrorism, an accusation that leaders of the UN, the United States and the European Union take seriously.
On October 7, Hamas-led attackers attacked cities in southern Israel, where they killed, tortured and raped their victims. More than 240 people, including children and the elderly, were kidnapped and taken to Gaza as hostages.
Last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling on Israel to end its war in Gaza, and on Friday, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial body, said Israel must take action to prevent acts of genocide by its forces.
Israel has previously accused UNRWA teachers of telling students in their schools to hate Israel, and has accused UNRWA employees of collaborating with Hamas. The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but President Biden restored it.
Israeli officials informed the UN and the United States earlier this week, according to State Department and UN officials.
In recent weeks, Israel has presented new evidence that it says shows UNRWA’s animosity toward Israel. Among the recent accusations made by the Israeli military There were copies of letters from Hamas’s military wing to the Gaza Ministry of Education asking that teachers be excused from work so they could participate in military training sessions.
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with UN Secretary General António Guterres on Thursday and called for “a thorough and swift investigation,” the State Department said. The department also said it was seeking more information from Israel, which initially made the allegation, adding that “UNRWA plays a critical role in providing life-saving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter and other vital humanitarian support.” ”.
David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for humanitarian affairs, led a group of U.S. officials who met with Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva of Israel, who showed them the full briefing materials, according to an official who attended the session.
UN leaders have repeatedly urged Israel to do more to limit harm to civilians and aid workers in the conflict. More than 100 UN staff have died since the start of the war, the most the world body has suffered in a single conflict.
UN officials have also warned in stark terms that ordinary Gaza residents are at risk of starvation and are experiencing a rise in infectious diseases as the weather turns colder.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s top diplomat and vice-president of the European Commission, said he was “extremely concerned” by the allegation that UN employees had been involved in the terrorist attacks. He said the commission was in contact with UNRWA and expected it to take immediate action against the personnel involved.
Additional reports were provided by Gaya Gupta and Adam Sella.