Israel vows to stop UN agency’s activities in Gaza after war

Israel vowed Saturday to stop the UN humanitarian aid agency in Gaza from operating after the war, and called for its chief to resign, after the sacking of staff accused of involvement in the October 7 attack.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said Friday it had fired several employees over Israel’s accusations, promising a thorough investigation into the claims, which were not specified.

Donors including Germany, Britain, Italy, Australia and Finland have followed the lead of the United States, which said Friday it had suspended additional funding to the agency over the accusations.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini to quit his post.

“Mr Lazzarini please resign,” Katz said on social media platform X late on Saturday in response to a post by the UNRWA chief warning that funding cuts meant the agency’s operation in Gaza was about to collapse.

Katz had said in an earlier statement that the UNRWA “must be replaced with agencies dedicated to genuine peace and development” in Gaza’s rebuilding.Hamas slammed Israeli “threats” against UNRWA on Saturday, urging the United Nations and other international organisations not to “cave in to the threats and blackmail”.Relations between Israel and UNRWA have been strained for years but deteriorated in recent days, with the UN body condemning tank shelling it said had hit a shelter for displaced people in Gaza’s main southern city of Khan Yunis.

The agency said tens of thousands of displaced people had been registered at the shelter and Wednesday’s tank shelling killed 13 people.

The Israeli military said “a thorough review of the operations of the forces in the vicinity is underway”, adding it was examining the possibility that the strike was a “result of Hamas fire”.

Lazzarini slammed Wednesday’s bombardment as a “blatant disregard of basic rules of war”, with the compound clearly marked as a UN facility and its coordinates shared with Israeli authorities.

The Israeli army is the only force known to have tanks operating in the Gaza Strip.

The war in Gaza was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attacks that resulted in about 1,140 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages and Israel says around 132 of them remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 dead captives.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas and Gaza’s health ministry says the Israeli military offensive has killed at least 26,257 people, about 70 percent of them women and children.

UNRWA struggled to meet funding requirements before the fighting broke out.

Its chronic budget shortfalls worsened dramatically in 2018 when former US president Donald Trump cut funding.

But US President Joe Biden’s administration fully restored support, providing $340 million in 2022, making it the agency’s largest bilateral donor.

The US State Department said Friday it had “temporarily paused additional funding” while it reviewed the claims about UNRWA staff.

Several key donor countries said Saturday they would halt funding. Lazzarini responded that it was “shocking to see a suspension of funds to the agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff”.

Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell praised the agency Friday for “playing a vital role over many years supporting vulnerable Palestinian refugees”.

But he said the bloc expected “full transparency”, as well as “immediate measures against staff involved”.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the occupied West Bank, urged donors to reverse their suspension, calling on Saturday for “maximum support”.

Johann Soufi, a lawyer and former director of UNRWA’s legal office in Gaza, told AFP the agency had “always had a zero-tolerance policy for violence and incitement to hatred”.

“Sanctioning UNRWA, which is barely keeping the entire population of Gaza alive, for the alleged responsibility of a few employees, is tantamount to collectively punishing the Gazan population, which is living in catastrophic humanitarian conditions,” he said.

The accusations against UNRWA staff came hours after the UN’s top court ruled on Friday that Israel must prevent possible acts of genocide in Gaza, its first judgement in a landmark case brought by South Africa.

Soufi said the timing of the allegations against UNRWA “raises questions”.

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