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UN chief warns Palestinian aid agency cannot be replaced

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has led crunch talks with donor countries to have payments reinstated to the UN's Palestinian refugee agency (ANGELA WEISS)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has led crunch talks with donor countries to have payments reinstated to the UN's Palestinian refugee agency (ANGELA WEISS)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday warned that his organization's Palestinian refugee agency cannot be replaced, even as it faces criticism after 12 staffers were implicated in Hamas's attack on Israel.

Several countries -- including the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan -- have suspended funding to the UNRWA agency, and Guterres has led crunch talks with donor countries to have payments reinstated.

"No other organization has a meaningful presence inside Gaza -- and nothing compared with this situation. So there is no other organization that would be able now to replace" it, Guterres told a media briefing.

The dispute intensified at the end of last month after Israel accused UNRWA of allowing Hamas to use agency infrastructure in the Gaza Strip for military activity.

UNRWA said it has acted promptly over allegations by Israel -- which Guterres called "credible" -- that 12 of its staff were involved in the Hamas attacks, adding that cuts in funding would affect ordinary Palestinians.

The UN agency has long been under scrutiny by Israel, which accuses it of systematically going against the country's interests, with Israel vowing to stop the agency's work in Gaza after the war.

Guterres pointed to the cost effectiveness of UNRWA as he defended why it was the best-placed organization to continue to deliver aid to Gaza.

"The costs with UNRWA are much lower than the costs with other agencies for historical reasons. The salaries paid by UNRWA are one-third of the salaries paid by UNICEF or WFP or other UN organizations," Guterres said, singling out the UN's children's fund and its World Food Programme.

"So any attempt of replacement, that is not possible."

Heavy fighting has raged on despite international efforts towards a ceasefire in the bloodiest ever Gaza war, sparked by Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel.

Hamas's unprecedented attack resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel vowed to eliminate the militant group and launched air strikes and a ground offensive that have killed at least 27,840 people, mostly women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Militants also seized around 250 hostages. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.

Fears of ground fighting grew  Thursday among the more than one million Palestinians crowded into Rafah as Israel stepped up air strikes on the far-southern city.

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