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War on Gaza: UN Secretary-General calls for Unrwa funding to be restored

Antonio Guterres warns two million people in Gaza rely on agency and that funding needs for February could not be met
Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres delivers his remarks during the opening session of the Third South Summit of the Group of 77 and China (G77+China) in Kampala on 21 January 2024 (Luis Tato/AFP)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa) to be restored, warning that millions of Palestinians relied on the agency.

Several countries, including the US and the UK, suspended funding for the agency on Friday after Israel alleged that 12 out of the 30,000 employees at Unrwa were involved in the Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on 7 October.

On Friday, Unrwa said it had severed ties with a number of employees and launched an investigation.

Guterres said that, despite the concerns, there needs to be a guarantee of the agency's continuing existence.

"While I understand their concerns - I was myself horrified by these accusations - I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of Unrwa's operations," Guterres said in a statement on Saturday.

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He added that two million civilians in Gaza depended on Unrwa's "critical aid" for their daily survival, but warned current funding would not allow it to meet all needs in February.

“There must be consequences for the alleged despicable actions of these employees. 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 penalised," he said.

"We must respond to the urgent needs of the desperate populations they care for."

Unrwa was established in 1949 - a year after the Nakba (or catastrophe) in which 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel - to provide healthcare, education and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. 

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Today, Unrwa is the second-largest employer in Gaza, following Hamas. The agency has 30,000 employees in total, 13,000 of whom are in the Gaza Strip. 

In the besieged enclave, it runs 183 schools, 22 health facilities and seven women's centres, among several other facilities. 

Its schools are attended by 286,645 students in Gaza, while its medical facilities have 3.4 million average visits per year, according to UN data.

At least 136 of the agency's 13,000 staff members in Gaza have been killed by Israeli attacks since the war broke out on 7 October. 

Its schools, facilities and shelters have been repeatedly targeted by Israeli bombardment, with scores of displaced Palestinian civilians killed while taking refuge in Unrwa facilities. 

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