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UN warns of 'collapse' of aid operation in Gaza

By AFP

January 31, 2024 12:51 PM


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Nothing can "replace or substitute" the UN Palestinian refugee agency, whose staff were implicated in the Hamas attacks on Israel, the UN's coordinator for Gaza aid said Tuesday even as Israel made new claims against it.

Several countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan, have suspended funding to the UNRWA agency, and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was holding crunch talks with donor countries.

Agency chiefs in the UN's highest-level humanitarian coordination forum, including the heads of the WHO, the UN rights office, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, warned defunding UNRWA risked a "catastrophic" humanitarian collapse in Gaza.

"Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would result in the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, with far-reaching humanitarian and human rights consequences in the occupied Palestinian territory and across the region," said the statement from heads of organizations that form the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The dispute intensified Tuesday after Israel accused the UNRWA of allowing Hamas to use agency infrastructure in Gaza for military activity.

UNRWA said it has acted promptly over allegations by Israel that 12 of its staff were involved in the Hamas attacks, adding that cuts in funding will affect ordinary Palestinians.

The UN agency has long been under scrutiny by Israel, which accuses it of systematically going against the country's interests.

- 'Fundamentally compromised' -

Israel has vowed to stop the agency's work in Gaza after the war and doubled down on Tuesday when government spokesman Eylon Levy said UNRWA "has been fundamentally compromised."

He accused it of "hiring terrorists on a massive scale, letting its infrastructure be used for Hamas military activity and relying on Hamas for aid distribution in the Gaza Strip."

UN Gaza aid coordinator Sigrid Kaag said earlier Tuesday "there is no way that any organization can replace or substitute (the) tremendous capacity, the fabric of UNRWA -- (their) ability and their knowledge of the population in Gaza."

Washington, which said it was the largest donor to the agency having given $131 million to UNRWA since October, said it "very much supported" its work.

"There is no other humanitarian player in Gaza who can provide food and water and medicine at the scale that UNRWA does," said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

"We want to see that work continued, which is why it is so important that the United Nations take this matter seriously, that they investigate, that there is accountability for anyone who is found to have engaged in wrongdoing."

The unprecedented October 7 Hamas attack resulted in about 1,140 deaths, mostly civilians, in southern Israel, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Militants also seized 250 hostages, of whom Israel says around 132 remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28.

Israel responded with a relentless military offensive that has killed at least 26,751 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory.

Mediators press for truce

Israel's army said Tuesday it was flooding Hamas's attack tunnels amid intense fighting in Gaza, even as international mediators pushed for a new halt in the nearly four-month war.

The epicentre of the fighting has been Khan Yunis, southern Gaza's main city where vast areas have been reduced to a muddy wasteland of bombed-out buildings.

The Israeli military said it had adopted the tactic of channelling water into Hamas's vast underground network of tunnels that it has dubbed "the Gaza metro".

"It is part of a range of tools deployed by the IDF (Israeli military) to neutralise the threat of Hamas's subterranean network of tunnels," it said, confirming media reports.

At the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, there were 1,300 tunnels over 500 kilometres (310 miles) in Gaza, according to a study from US military academy West Point.

The army vowed to destroy them in the wake of Hamas's October 7 attacks on Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

About 250 foreign and Israeli hostages were also dragged to Gaza during the October 7 attack, of which around 132 are still held captive, including bodies of at least 28 people believed to have been killed.

Since the Hamas attack, Israel has launched a withering air, land and sea offensive in Gaza that has killed at least 26,751 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory.

The military says many of the hostages taken by Hamas have been or continue to be held in the vast network of tunnels.

In December, some Israeli media said the army was leaning towards flooding the tunnels with seawater pumped from the Mediterranean, but experts warned it was dangerous and posed huge risks to civilians.

On Tuesday, the military said it had taken care not to "damage the area's groundwater".

- Truce talks -

In Khan Yunis, the Israeli army said its troops fighting in city blocks and tunnels had "eliminated terrorists during combat and located large quantities of weapons".

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society accused Israel of "firing live ammunition and smoke grenades" at displaced people and its staff from tanks at Al-Amal hospital in Khan Yunis. The army denied the allegation.

In the latest efforts to broker a new truce, a meeting in Paris on Sunday between top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials resulted in a proposed framework.

Hamas said on Tuesday it had received the proposal, saying on its Telegram account that it was "in the process of examining it and delivering its response".

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, whose government helped broker a previous truce in November, voiced hope an initial deal might lead to a permanent ceasefire.

Sheikh Mohammed said the current plan included a phased truce that would see women and children hostages released first, with more aid also entering Gaza.

The United States expressed hope for a deal, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying "very important, productive work has been done".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose office earlier also called the talks "constructive", ruled out releasing "thousands" of Palestinian prisoners as part of any deal to halt fighting in Gaza.

"I would like to make it clear... We will not withdraw the IDF from the Gaza Strip and we will not release thousands of terrorists. None of this will happen," he said Tuesday.

- Undercover hospital raid -

Violence has also surged in the West Bank since the start of the war.

On Wednesday, Israeli undercover troops raided a hospital in Jenin, in the north of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, killing three men the army said were members of a "terrorist cell".

Some of the Israeli agents were dressed as medical staff and carried a wheelchair and baby carrier as props, according to officials and hospital CCTV footage released by the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.

Hamas said one of the three killed, Muhammad Jalamnah, was a commander in its armed wing.

The Israeli army charged that Jalamnah, allegedly "inspired" by the October 7 attack, had "planned to carry out a terror attack in the immediate future and used the hospital as a hiding place".

The Palestinian health ministry said hospitals enjoy special protection under international law and urged the United Nations to help end Israel's "daily string of crimes... against our people and health centres".

In southern Gaza, Palestinians buried dozens of bodies in a mass grave after officials said Israel returned remains it had exhumed from the territory.

The Israeli military did not respond to a request to comment, although it has previously made remarks about exhuming bodies from Gaza graves in search of Israeli hostages.

- UN-Israel row -

Fears have grown that the Middle East could face a wider conflict, after months of violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, who have also targeted US forces.

The war has left much of Gaza in ruins and sparked a spiralling humanitarian crisis for its 2.4 million people, many of whom face the threats of hunger and disease.

Israel has alleged that several staff of the main UN aid agency for Palestinians took part in the October 7 attack, leading key donor countries including the United States and Germany to suspend funding.

The UN's coordinator for Gaza aid, Sigrid Kaag, said Tuesday that no other agency can "replace or substitute" UNRWA, which has thousands of employees.

Israel, which has vowed to stop the agency's work in Gaza, later accused UNRWA of being a "front for Hamas".

"It has been fundamentally compromised in three main ways: hiring terrorists on a massive scale, letting its infrastructure be used for Hamas military activity and relying on Hamas for aid distribution," government spokesman Eylon Levy said.


AFP


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