The United Nations on Friday fired 12 of its employees in Gaza and began an investigation of them after charges by Israel that they had helped plan and participated in the Oct. 7 terrorist assault that left 1,400 Israelis dead or captured.
The workers, all men and all employed by the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians and known by the acronym UNRWA, are subject to a criminal investigation, two U.N. officials said.
A U.N. official, briefed on the accusations, called the allegations “extremely serious and horrific.”
Israel, which presented the allegations to the U.N. earlier this week, has previously accused UNRWA, which provides social and education programs in the Gaza Strip, of fueling anti-Israeli incitement. The stunning accusation and the U.N.’s swift reaction, however, contrast with previous U.N. denials of Israeli allegations.
“UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks,” said Mr. Lazzarini. “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.”
The accusations led to swift action by the United States, one of the agency’s largest donors, which temporarily halted funding to the organization. UNWRA has been the principal agency overseeing the distribution of aid to Gazans amid a growing humanitarian crisis resulting from the war launched in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack.
Mr. Lazzarini said the allegations came a time when more than two million Gazans are depending on the U.N. agency for food, medicine and other critical aid. “Anyone who betrays the fundamental values of the United Nations also betrays those whom we serve in Gaza, across the region and elsewhere around the world,” he said.
Israel and the U.N. have each accused each other of acting in bad faith since Israel launched its war in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led assault, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people. The U.N. has accused Israel of slowing the delivery of humanitarian aid to the embattled enclave, and Israel has said the world body has promoted Hamas’s propaganda.
Those allegations, however, are less politically sensitive than the accusation that humanitarian workers could have engaged in an act of terror, an allegation being taken seriously by the U.N. secretariat, the United States and the European Union, UNRWA’s largest donors.
The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, spoke on Thursday with the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, and called for “a thorough and swift investigation,” the State Department said. Mr. Blinken also told the U.N.’s leader that the United States was asking Israel, which initially made the allegation, for more information.
UNRWA, or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is one of Gaza’s largest employers, with 13,000 workers, and drives much of the enclave’s education, health and food assistance operations. During the war, it has played a critical role in overseeing the distribution of food and medical aid in Gaza.
United Nations officials have repeatedly said ordinary residents of Gaza are at risk of starvation and are experiencing a spike in infectious diseases as the weather gets colder.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U.’s top diplomat and vice president of the European Commission, said he was “extremely concerned” about the allegation that U.N. employees had been involved in the terrorist attacks. He said that the Commission was in contact with UNRWA and expected it to take immediate measures against the staff involved.