UNRWA Is Imperiled by Accusations of Terrorism

Leaders of the largest United Nations agency in Gaza warned on Monday that it may soon run out of money as new allegations emerged about Hamas’s influence on the organization.

As U.N. officials fretted over the future of UNRWA, the main aid agency for Palestinians, Israeli officials debated whether it made sense to publicly air accusations that a group of the agency’s workers were involved in the Oct. 7 terror attack. Some Israeli military leaders believed it was a mistake to unleash a furor, according to three Israeli officials involved in the discussions, because the agency’s collapse would leave a huge administrative and logistical vacuum in the middle of a humanitarian crisis.

UNRWA plays a crucial role in Gaza — distributing food, water and medicine — and it is unclear who would fill the vacuum were it to collapse. Most of Gaza’s 2.2 million people are displaced from their homes, many are sheltering in centers and schools run by the agency, and it helps allocate the aid that arrives in Gaza each day.

Israel has charged that at least 12 employees of the agency — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees — participated in the Oct. 7 attack and that as many 1,300 employees are members of the group. The Oct. 7 assault ended with roughly 1,200 people dead and another 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli estimates.

The Israeli military provided the United States with a dossier alleging that roughly 10 percent of the agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza are Hamas members. That assessment is derived from cross-referencing an UNRWA staff list with a directory of Hamas members that soldiers found on a computer during a recent operation inside Gaza, according to the military officials.

The allegations include evidence that one UNRWA worker kidnapped a woman and another took part in a massacre at a kibbutz. The United Nations is investigating the charges, which were first made public on Friday, and it has fired nine of the accused.

Hamas, which is considered a terror group by the United States and the European Union, also controls the civil authority that ran Gaza at the start of the war. It was unclear how many of the accused members were active in the group’s armed wings, though membership alone for UNRWA members is illegal.

As the new allegations were made public on Monday, Austria joined 13 other countries in temporarily halting its donations to UNRWA, leading the agency to warn that its operations could cease for lack of money by the end of February.

Some Israeli military leaders said Monday they were questioning the timing of their diplomatic counterparts’ accusations against UNRWA, according to three Israeli officials involved in the discussions. Israeli security chiefs fear they will be left playing a more direct role in the distribution of food and aid, a role they do not want.

Some of Israel’s military leaders are unsure about the merits of publicly distributing the intelligence dossier because it could force more donors to withdraw funding before Israel had properly thought through how UNRWA could be replaced.

“I would be happy if UNRWA would be closed,” said Ilan Paz, a former Israeli general who dealt with UNRWA during his time in service.

“But you know, there is no other organization,” Mr. Paz said. Israel’s failure to think about how it might replace UNRWA was one of several gaps in the government’s long-term thinking about the war and its aftermath, he added.

Many Israeli officials have wanted for years to disband UNRWA, accusing it of being influenced by — or even collaborating with — Hamas, a charge the agency denies. The Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, called on Saturday for it to be replaced. But even officials who share that antipathy say this is not the time to get rid of the agency.

Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 assault, a relentless bombing campaign and an invasion by ground forces, has led to a deep humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where at least 26,000 people have been killed — more than 1 in 100 — according to Gazan officials. The health system has collapsed, diseases are spreading, and aid groups are warning of a looming famine.

In recent days, the situation has worsened after torrential rains flooded areas where thousands of displaced Palestinians are sheltering in flimsy makeshift tents.

Khalil el-Halabi, 70, said he had been struggling with a cold for a week when rain flooded his tent in Rafah. After one downpour subsided, Mr. el-Halabi and his family tried to dry out parts of the tent where water had entered — but the water just found its way back inside when it rained again the next day.

“Disastrous,” Mr. el-Halabi, originally from Gaza City, said. “The water went everywhere.”

According to Israeli and U.N. officials, Israeli diplomats made the accusations about the 12 UNRWA workers at a private meeting in Israel with UNRWA’s leadership nearly two weeks ago. The meeting was held without the knowledge of the senior military and intelligence officers who had overseen the operation that had investigated the 12 workers’ links to the attack, according to three military officials. The foreign ministry declined to comment.

Days later, UNRWA fired most of the accused workers and notified its key donors, including the United States, whose diplomats swiftly sought clarification about the claims from the Israeli military.

The military leadership was so surprised that the information had reached U.S. officials that they ordered an internal investigation about how it was disseminated, according to the military officials, who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive matter.

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, plans to meet on Tuesday with representatives of the countries that are UNRWA’s major donors and urge them to keep it afloat.

“He is personally horrified by the accusations against employees of UNRWA but his message to donors, especially those who have suspended their contribution, is to at least guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” said Stephane Dujarric, Mr. Guterres’s spokesman. “The dire needs of the desperate population they serve must be met.”

UNRWA provides Israel’s foreign ministry with a staff list every year. Asked why it had not previously detected such a high number of Hamas members among that list, the foreign ministry said that the information it was given was only partial, and that vetting the employees was UNRWA’s responsibility. The agency said it does not routinely conduct background checks of its workers.

The agency was founded in 1949 to care for Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the wars surrounding the creation of Israel. Now, it provides services to more than 5 million refugees and their descendants who live across the Middle East, including Gaza.

Israelis say the group helps to sustain the refugees’ goal of returning to territory in what is now Israel, a goal Israelis oppose. Palestinians and their supporters say UNRWA is a crucial lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people in the Middle East.

“The people who will be affected by this are the 1 million people taking refuge in UNRWA shelters in Gaza,” said Chris Gunness, a former spokesman for the organization.

And at a time when its services are needed most, UNRWA’s leadership now says that it may not be able to continue because it has no strategic financial reserve.

Donor countries release funding in installments throughout the year. While the United States’ next payment is not expected until June, some of the other countries that have suspended funding were scheduled to make their next donations in February, Juliette Touma, UNRWA’s director of communications, said in a phone interview.

Because UNRWA used up most of its financial reserves during a previous funding freeze ordered by President Donald J. Trump, the agency depends on a stable flow of donations to stay afloat, Ms. Touma said.

If even a few donors fail to restore their funding by the end of February, Ms. Touma said, UNRWA will stop being able to pay the salaries of its 30,000 employees across the Middle East.

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek, Adam Rasgon, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Farnaz Fassihi, Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman.