Israel is withholding food for 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza, main UN aid agency there says


Israel has imposed financial restrictions on the main UN agency providing aid in the Gaza Strip, a move that prevented a shipment of food for 1.1 million Palestinians from reaching the war-torn enclave, the director said on Friday. from the agency.

The restrictions deepened a crisis between Israel and UNRWA, whose operations have been threatened following Israeli accusations that some of its workers participated in the October 7 attack that sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. Those accusations have led major donor countries, including the United States, to suspend funding to the UN organization and have left its future in doubt.

UNRWA director Philippe Lazzarini said Friday that a convoy of food donated by Turkey has been in the Israeli port city of Ashdod for weeks. The agency said the Israeli contractor they work with received a call from Israeli customs authorities “ordering them not to process any UNRWA products.”

That stoppage means that 1,049 containers of rice, flour, chickpeas, sugar and cooking oil (enough to feed 1.1 million people for a month) are stuck, even as an estimated 25 percent of families in Gaza They face catastrophic hunger.

The World Food Program warned Friday that Gaza could be plunged into famine as early as May. The U.N. food agency defines a famine as when 30 percent of children are malnourished, a fifth of households face acute food shortages and two in 10,000 people die from hunger or malnutrition.

Israel declared war and imposed a siege on Gaza in response to the Hamas attack on October 7, which killed 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage. The war has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and each day only territory a thread of humanitarian aid.

Israel has long criticized UNRWA, accusing it of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas and perpetuating the 76-year-old Palestinian refugee crisis. UNRWA, which serves some 6 million Palestinians whose families were displaced during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948, denies the allegations. But tensions have only intensified following Israel’s latest accusations.

Juliette Touma, the agency’s communications director, said UNWRA’s bank account at Bank Leumi, which the agency has maintained for decades, was also frozen this week. Additionally, Touma said Israeli customs authorities notified the agency that UNRWA will no longer receive tax exemptions.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted Thursday that “the State of Israel will not give tax benefits to terrorist assistants.”

Smotrich, a far-right ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency has been able to divert other aid shipments through Port Said in Egypt, but Lazzarini warned Friday that the delay means greater difficulties in the already difficult task of distributing aid to Gaza. About 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the war.

UNWRA is the main provider of aid to Palestinians in Gaza, but Israeli bombing and fighting between Israel and Hamas have made much of the territory too dangerous for aid convoys to cross. The agency has been unable to deliver aid to an estimated 300,000 Palestinians still in the northern half of Gaza, where the World Food Program says food insecurity is worst.

Lazzarini said efforts have instead focused on the 1.3 million displaced Palestinians taking shelter in makeshift camps in Rafah, a city on the border with Egypt where the agency relies on local police to escort convoys of Helps distribution points to prevent theft. But that, too, has become increasingly difficult, as Israeli warplanes bomb targets in the city.

Airstrikes killed eight police officers in the city over the past four days, Lazzarini said, making police reluctant to continue helping the agency. Three attacks occurred near a UNWRA clinic, Lazzarini said. Israeli media have portrayed the police escorts as an attempt by Hamas to seize aid shipments for its own use.

Lazzarini said the police the agency works with were not affiliated with militant groups. Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the police escort was necessary to prevent people from throwing stones at the convoy and trying to steal their aid.

Israel alleged last month that 12 aid agency employees participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel. Several countries suspended funding worth about $440 million, nearly half of the agency’s annual budget.

Two UN investigations are underway, including an independent review announced this week. The review, headed by a former French foreign minister, is supposed to focus on how the agency ensures it remains neutral and responds to accusations that it did not. Colonna’s team plans to see if the system works and how it could be improved.

Lazzarini said Friday that he immediately fired the 10 workers, rather than suspending them, without first investigating the evidence against them. Two others had been murdered when the allegations emerged. Lazzarini said there was too much pressure on the organization (and current conditions make vetting workers difficult) to do anything more.

“Knowing that the organization is under vicious and nasty attacks,” he said, “I couldn’t take the risk… I could have suspended them, but I fired them.”

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