The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said Israeli authorities provided the agency “with information” alleging several of its employees participated in Hamas’ murderous rampage into southern Israel, when the militant group killed at least 1,200 people and abducted more than 250 others.
An investigation is being launched into the alleged involvement of the employees and those involved will be held accountable “including through criminal prosecution,” added Lazzarini. The commissioner-general said he made the decision in order to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid.
Israeli Foreign Ministry told CNN on Friday that it welcomed the investigation. “It is important that UNRWA conduct a thorough in-house check on the activity of Hamas and other terrorist factors in its ranks in order to ensure the organization’s humanitarian activity is not taken advantage of,” it said.
The news came hours after the UN’s top court ordered Israel to act immediately to prevent genocide in Gaza but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire, in a ruling that was largely welcomed by the three main parties involved.
In the wake of the allegations against UNRWA, the US State Department announced it had “temporarily paused additional funding” to the agency – a move praised by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to “emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter,” State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said in a statement on Friday.
The US has contacted the Israeli government for more details on the allegations, added Miller. They have also briefed member of Congress.
CNN has reached out to UNRWA and the Israeli authorities about the information Israel provided UNRWA and the nature of the alleged involvement of the UNRWA employees.
“These shocking allegations come as more than 2 million people in Gaza depend on lifesaving assistance that the Agency has been providing since the war began,” said Lazzarini. “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”.
On Friday, Republican US Senator Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the allegations as “unconscionable.”
“For years, I have warned the Biden Administration about resuming funding to UNRWA, which has a history of employing people connected to terrorist movements like Hamas. Today’s news is yet another example that underscores how corrupt this organization truly is.”
CNN cannot independently verify the allegations.
Israel’s relations with the UN have deteriorated in recent months, after the organization’s senior officials repeatedly condemned the country’s military approach to the war in Gaza.
In December, Israeli diplomats lashed out when UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked a rarely used but powerful tool in his determined push for a ceasefire. At the time, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the UN chief’s tenure was “a danger to world peace” and that his call for a ceasefire in Gaza amounted to supporting Hamas and the October 7 attack.
As Israel’s offensive enters its fourth month, entire neighborhoods in Gaza have been wiped out, critical supplies are dwindling and more than 2.2 million people face starvation, dehydration and deadly disease. At least 1.7 million Palestinians have been internally displaced, many of them multiple times, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of world leaders have warned against the mounting Palestinian death toll. Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed at least 26,083 people, the vast majority of whom are women, children and the elderly, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. CNN cannot independently verify the figures due to the difficulties of reporting from the war zone.
Israel has strongly opposed calls for a ceasefire, maintaining that it needs to press on with its aim of eliminating Hamas.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
CNN’s Lauren Iszo, Niamh Kennedy, Abbas Al Lawati and Nadeen Ebrahim contributed reporting.