RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The secretary-general of the United Nations on Sunday called on countries to continue funding the main agency providing aid in Gaza after several of its employees were accused of taking part in the Hamas attack on Israel that ignited the war four months ago.
The dispute engulfing the biggest provider of vital aid to Palestinians came as U.S. officials said negotiators were closing in on a cease-fire agreement. The emerging deal would bring a two-month halt to the deadliest-ever Israeli-Palestinian violence, which has stoked instability across the Middle East.
Antonio Guterres warned that the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, would be forced to scale back aid to more than 2 million Palestinians as soon as February. The coastal enclave is in the grip of a severe humanitarian crisis, with a quarter of the population facing starvation.
“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences,” Guterres said in a statement.
“But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met,” he added.
He said that of the 12 employees accused of taking part in the attack, nine had been immediately terminated, one was confirmed dead and “the identity of the two others is being clarified.” He said all would be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.
UNRWA has 13,000 staffers in Gaza, nearly all of them Palestinians. It provides basic services, from medical care to education, for Palestinians families who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation — a majority of Gaza’s population. It has expanded operations during the war, running shelters housing hundreds of thousands of newly displaced people.
More than two million of the territory’s 2.3 million people depend on it for “sheer survival,” including food and shelter, UNRWA director Philippe Lazzarini said, warning this lifeline can “collapse any time now.”
The United States, which is the largest donor to the agency, immediately suspended funding over the weekend, followed by several other countries, including Britain, Germany and Italy.
The Israel-Hamas war has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, destroyed vast swaths of Gaza and displaced nearly 85 percent of the territory’s people. The Hamas attack in southern Israel killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and about 250 hostages were taken.
Progress in cease-fire talks
Two senior Biden administration officials said U.S. negotiators were making progress on a potential agreement under which Israel would pause military operations against Hamas for two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages.
The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, said that emerging terms of the yet-to-be sealed deal would play out over two phases, with the remaining women, elderly and wounded hostages to be released by Hamas in a first 30-day phase. The emerging deal also calls for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.
More than 100 hostages, mainly women and children, were released in November in exchange for a weeklong cease-fire and the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. / AP