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A man assists a Palestinian woman in a wheelchair, at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, Egypt, on February 1, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

JERUSALEM: The UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees said on Thursday that international funding cuts may force the shutdown of its operations across the region “by the end of February”.

Several major donor countries to UNRWA said they would suspend funding after Israel alleged 12 agency employees took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

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UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said that “if the funding remains suspended, we will most likely be forced to shut down our operations by end of February not only in Gaza but also across the region”.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said after talks with Lazzarini that he “emphasised the immediate need for the international community to support UNRWA, which plays an indispensable role for Palestinian refugees, serving as a lifeline for over two million Palestinians facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.

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Donors are demanding a swift investigation before resuming funding, though they have praised the work of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in Gaza and its response so far to the allegations.

UNRWA believes it has responded rapidly and transparently to Israel’s allegations, which came as Israel faced a genocide case at the International Court of Justice over the Gaza war, and after years of it calling for the agency to be disbanded.

Israel’s offensive in the Palestinian enclave has caused the world’s most acute humanitarian crisis, with 85% of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants homeless, large numbers starving and others falling sick.

A foreign ministry statement in Amman said that both Safadi and Lazzarini urged countries that have suspended aid to UNRWA to “reconsider their decision”.

“Any reduction in financial support provided to the agency will exacerbate the suffering of the people of Gaza, who are already on the brink of mass starvation,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the toll from Israel’s nearly 4-month offensive in Gaza surpassed 27,000 Palestinians killed and more than 66,000 wounded, the territory’s Health Ministry said on Thursday.

The number of deaths has grown by more than 1,100 since the International Criminal Court in the Hague a week ago ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent deaths, destruction and any acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

South Africa’s foreign minister alleged Israel is ignoring the ruling by the United Nations’ top court last week, which ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, by killing hundreds more civilians in a matter of days in Gaza.=

Israel denies the genocide accusations brought against it at the court by South Africa and says it is fighting to destroy Gaza’s Hamas rulers after the militants’ October 7 attack on southern Israel. The case before the court is likely to take years before a final ruling.

The ministry said 27,019 Palestinians have been killed and 66,139 wounded since October 7. It did not specify the number of women and children among the dead, but in previous counts they have constituted up to two-thirds of the toll. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Deepening crisis

Mediators pushed on with efforts for a ceasefire as fighting raged on in the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday, deepening a dire humanitarian crisis.

The Israeli military said troops had “eliminated dozens of terrorists” in the past day and destroyed a long-range missile launcher in the embattled southern city of Khan Yunis.

The Qatar-based leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh was expected in Cairo on Thursday or Friday for talks on a proposed truce.

The group was reviewing a proposal for a six-week pause in its war with Israel, a Hamas source told AFP, after mediators gathered in Paris.

In Gaza, there was no let-up in fighting or aerial bombardment, with the current focus of combat in Khan Younis, where Israel says leading Hamas militants are hiding.

Overnight, witnesses said several Israeli air strikes hit the city, while aid and health workers have for days reported heavy fighting, particularly around two hospitals.

According to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, 119 people were killed in the latest night of strikes.

“There is a massacre taking place right now,” said Leo Cans of international aid group Doctors Without Borders.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out withdrawing troops from Gaza and has repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the October 7 attack.

Netanyahu has also opposed releasing “thousands” of Palestinian prisoners as part of any deal.

With scores of Israeli hostages still trapped in Gaza, there has been mounting criticism of Netanyahu’s government that has triggered street protests and calls for an early election.

For people in Gaza, access to aid has been further hampered by a controversy surrounding the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, after Israel accused several of its staff of involvement in the Hamas attack.