US pauses funding to UN agency for Palestinians

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees fired a number of its staffers in Gaza suspected of taking part in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other militants on southern Israel, its director said Friday, prompting the United States — the agency’s biggest donor — to temporarily halt its funding.

The agency, known by its acronym UNRWA, has been the main agency providing aid for Gaza’s population amid the humanitarian disaster caused by Israel’s offensive against Hamas in Gaza triggered by the Oct. 7 attack.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said it terminated contracts with “several” employees and ordered an investigation after Israel provided information alleging they played a role in the attack. The U.S. State Department said there were allegations against 12 employees. UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza, almost all of them Palestinians, ranging from teachers in schools that the agency runs to doctors, medical staff and aid workers.

Lazzarini called the allegations “shocking” and said any employee “involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”

In the unprecedented surprise attack, Hamas fighters broke through the security fence surrounding Gaza and stormed nearby Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping some 250. Other militants joined the rampage.

“UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks of 7 October” and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages, Lazzarini said.

Since the war’s start, Israel’s assault has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 64,400 others, Gaza’s Health Ministry said Friday.

More than 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes by the war — with hundreds of thousands of them crowded into schools and other shelters run by UNRWA.

The U.S. State Department said it was “extremely troubled” by the allegations against the UNRWA staffers and has temporarily paused additional funding for the agency. The U.S. is the biggest donor to the agency, providing it with $340 million in 2022 and several hundred million in 2023.

UNRWA was created to care for millions of Palestinians across the Middle East whose families fled or were forced from properties inside what is Israel during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Israel rejects a return of the refugees to their former lands. Israeli officials and their allies — including in the U.S. Congress — allege that UNRWA allows anti-Israeli incitement to be taught in its hundreds of schools and that some of its staff collaborate with Hamas. The Trump administration suspended funding to the agency in 2018, but President Joe Biden restored it.

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