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Several nations pause funding to UNRWA over alleged staff involvement in Hamas attack

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The United Nations agency tasked with delivering aid to millions of people in Gaza has seen its funding suspended by several nations following revelations that employees may have been involved in the October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people. The controversy comes at a time when intense fighting is continuing around hospitals and aid facilities in southern Gaza. Joining me to discuss the latest from Tel Aviv is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

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DETROW: So this agency is among the most important entities operating in Gaza. Who has suspended their funding and why?

BRUMFIEL: This all began when Israeli authorities found evidence that United Nations employees had been involved in October 7. In a statement to NPR, the Israeli military said its intelligence directorate had reviewed the events around October 7, and as it did so, it found incriminating evidence that several of the agency's employees were involved in the massacre and that U.N. facilities were actually used for terrorist purposes.

Now, the U.N. isn't providing further details for now, but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he was horrified by the allegations. The employees were fired, and the U.N. has launched an investigation. The US State Department says that 12 employees in total were involved, and it also said it was pausing funding to the agency in question while it looked into the allegations and the steps the U.N. was taking to address them. Today, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Italy were among the other countries that followed suit imposed their funding.

DETROW: Tell us more about this agency, though, the work it does and why it is so central to helping Palestinians.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, its name is a little bit of a mouthful. It's called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. It was founded in 1949, and it runs schools, health clinics and aid distribution sites throughout Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Now, in Gaza, it has around 13,000 employees, many of whom are Palestinian. And it has really been on the frontlines of this war. Its schools and warehouses have turned into shelters for well over a million Palestinians fleeing the fighting. These sites have repeatedly come under fire, and 152 of the agency's own employees have been killed since this all began.

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DETROW: OK. So what will happen now, though?

BRUMFIEL: So the agency has asked the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York to conduct an investigation. It's unclear how long that's going to take, and it's also unclear how long the agency can continue to operate with the funding it currently has. The U.S. is by far the largest funder, and its dollars matter a lot. Last year, it gave $422 million towards the agency's appeal to address the needs of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and beyond. The agency has been in a funding crisis on and off for years now. The war has put enormous strain on its employees, and obviously, if it can't function, that could spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians trapped in Gaza for who this has really been a lifeline, having this agency working for them.

DETROW: Yeah. And let's end broadening out and talking about those Palestinians for a moment, people stuck in Gaza. What is the situation for them at this moment?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Things have really gone from, you know, being very bad to being even worse. So Israel is conducting a big offensive in a city called Khan Yunis. It was home to a large U.N. shelter, two hospitals and a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance center. And all of these facilities have been paralyzed by the fighting. Our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, has been speaking to people who fled the area, including Abdullah Tantish (ph), whose father was struck by a stray bullet.

ABDULLAH TANTISH: (Non-English language spoken).

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BRUMFIEL: He says, we took him running and screaming, please help us, but no one could help or respond to us. I started running with my uncle and my brother carrying him, and we didn't even know where to take him. Today we're hearing that the largest remaining hospital in Gaza, which is in this neighborhood where the fighting's been, is near collapsed. The group, Doctors Without Borders, says the hospital can no longer provide critical medical services, but continued fighting and a lack of ambulances has left about 350 patients trapped inside.

DETROW: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel joining us from Tel Aviv. Thanks, Jeff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.