After days of sharply criticizing the U.N. agency charged with assisting Palestinian civilians, donor countries signaled on Wednesday that they would continue to support the organization under the right conditions and stressed its essential role in delivering lifesaving aid as widespread starvation and disease loom in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.
At least 12 countries, including the United States and Germany, the two biggest donors, have temporarily suspended funding after the Israeli government circulated allegations that employees of the group, known as UNRWA, participated in the Oct. 7 attacks.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stressed on Wednesday that the funding pause for the agency was temporary and praised the agency’s work, comments that suggested an appetite could exist among donors to resolve the funding crisis.
“We know that this agency provides lifesaving services under incredibly challenging circumstances in Gaza and it contributes to regional stability and security,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday afternoon.
“For this reason, and for the sake of millions of Palestinian civilians who depend on UNRWA’s services, it is vital that the U.N. take quick and decisive action to hold accountable anyone guilty of heinous actions and to strengthen oversight of UNRWA’s operations and begin to restore donor confidence.”
Based on phone intercepts, Israel accused 12 U.N. employees of participating in the Oct. 7 attacks, with one said to have kidnapped a woman and another to have taken part in the massacre at a kibbutz where 97 people died. Nine of the 12 employees were fired, the agency said, and two are dead.
The Israeli government regards UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, as a front for Hamas, and for years has called for it to be abandoned. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, re-emphasized that position on Wednesday: “The time has come for the international community and the U.N. itself to understand that UNRWA’s mission must be ended,” he said in a video on social media. “UNRWA is perpetuating itself. It seeks to preserve the issue of Palestinian refugees.”
Still, some military leaders say they fear that, without UNRWA, the responsibility for distributing aid in Gaza would likely fall to Israel’s government, though Mr. Netanyahu suggested that other U.N. agencies and aid groups could take up the slack.
While diplomats pressed ahead on Friday for an extended pause in the fighting in Gaza, the Israeli military fought Hamas militants in the territory’s north and south, where Israeli forces say many Hamas militants are ensconced in tunnels. The military confirmed Tuesday that it was pumping seawater into the underground network to flush militants out, a tactic that many experts doubt will work and could damage sensitive infrastructure.
An American-led cease-fire initiative is being studied by both Hamas and Israel this week.
“The proposal on the table is strong and it is compelling,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said Wednesday. “It envisions a much longer humanitarian pause than we saw in November and would allow for us to get the hostages out and more lifesaving food and water into Gaza.” A weeklong pause in fighting in November offered a window of humanitarian assistance for Gaza and included a swap of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners.
The United Nations has said the funding suspension by major donors could jeopardize UNRWA’s work within weeks. Martin Griffiths, the top U.N. humanitarian official, told the Security Council meeting on Wednesday that its operations in Gaza were “completely dependent on UNRWA being adequately funded and operational.”
Withholding funding for the “alleged actions of a few individuals,” he said, was a “matter of extraordinary disproportion.”
The U.N. said last week that it had started an investigation of UNRWA, and that it would take at least four weeks, according to two diplomats familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters. The U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, conveyed that message to donor countries in New York this week, one of the diplomats said.
That time frame would be quicker than usual. Inquiries conducted by the U.N.’s top auditing body, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, typically take many months and involve interviews with staff members, site visits and a forensic review of U.N.-issued computers, telephones and other equipment, said Vladimir Dzuro, a former senior investigator in the office.
U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, warned this week in a joint statement that any pause in funding for UNRWA would have “catastrophic consequences for the people of Gaza.” For weeks, U.N. leaders have warned that ordinary people trapped in the war zone are facing hunger and rampant disease.
“Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would result in the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza,” the statement said.
Donor countries made individual decisions to suspend aid to UNRWA, and it is not clear that they would act in concert in response to the U.N.’s investigation.
A spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry, Sebastian Fischer, said this week that the government would wait to see what the investigation yields before making a decision. Still, Mr. Fischer said, the investigation is important because UNRWA’s work is so vital. “We are not abandoning the Palestinian civilian population,” he told journalists.
Speaking on Tuesday, a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, did not say when the U.S. government might make a decision about resuming funding for the agency. But he played down the immediate significance of the suspension, saying the State Department had already transferred all but $300,000 of about $121 million budgeted for UNRWA.
The European Union, which pledged $114 million to UNRWA in 2022, has not suspended funding, and its top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles, said on Wednesday that it was critical to preserve the agency’s “irreplaceable role.”
Norway, a donor that has also not suspended aid, will try to persuade other donors to think about the wider implications of a funding cut to UNRWA, said the country’s foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide.
He said it was worrying that for some donor countries the allegations of misdeeds by a dozen agency employees had become a reason to suspend funding. This approach “amounts in a sense to a collective punishment of millions of Palestinians,” he said.
His argument echoed the views expressed by some officials in aid agencies, who have noted that, in the past, donors have maintained funding to U.N. missions and agencies even when investigations had proven that staff members were guilty of serious crimes.