US suspends UN relief agency funding over allegations that staffers took part in Oct. 7 massacres
UNRWA distributes flour to Palestinian refugees in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. (Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

By Ron Kampeas
January 26, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration suspended funding for the main relief agency for Palestinians after UNRWA said it had fired staffers who allegedly took part in the Oct. 7 massacres in Israel, a major financial blow while the Israel-Hamas war still rages.

UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini in a statement on Friday confirmed that he had fired “several” staffers while the agency investigates evidence provided by Israel. It was not clear if he had fired all 12 named by Israel.

“The United States is extremely troubled by the allegations that twelve UNRWA employees may have been involved in the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel,” Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, said Friday in a statement. “The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them.”

UNRWA is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the principal funder of Palestinian refugees of Israel’s 1948 Independence War and their descendants. The United States is the single largest donor to UNRWA providing a third of its budget — $344 million of $1.17 billion in 2022 — and the suspension comes as the agency scrambles to assist Gaza Palestinians driven to starvation by the devastation of the Israel-Hamas war.

“Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution,” Lazzarini said. “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.”

Former President Donald Trump suspended funding to UNRWA at the behest of Nikki Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations at the time and now his rival for the Republican presidential nomination. President Joe Biden resumed the funding, in part to spur forward Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which Trump had all but abandoned.

Right-wing pro-Israel groups as well as Republicans had long argued for defunding the agency, saying that its near uniqueness — granting refugee status not just to the first generation of refugees but to their descendants — perpetuated the conflict and a culture of dependence among Palestinians.

Israel’s relationship with the agency, even under the most hawkish of governments, was more ambivalent. Israeli officials believed the agency perpetuated the conflict, but also saw the relief the agency provided as a means of keeping the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, from exploding into chaos. UNRWA also provides relief to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The outbreak of war deteriorated relations between Israel and UNRWA. The agency, in sometimes strident tones, said Israel was targeting civilian targets, including its schools and its first responder stations. Israel said UNRWA was, willfully or under threat, providing cover for Hamas terrorists.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, thanked the Biden administration for its action.

“These are ‘humanitarian workers’ with blood on their hands,” he said in a statement, of the 12 UNRWA staffers named by Israel. “Major changes need to take place so that international efforts, funds, and humanitarian initiatives don’t fuel Hamas terrorism and the murder of Israelis.”

Hamas terrorists murdered more than 1,200 people, brutalized thousands more and abducted more than 240 on Oct. 7. Since Israel launched counterstrikes, more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, including thousands of children. Israel says a third of the dead are combatants.

“UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks of 7 October and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages and their safe return to their families,” UNRWA’s Lazzarini said in his statement.

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