Thursday, June 20, 2024
 
 

UNRWA blasted for allegations that staffers supported Hamas

Multiple western donor countries have frozen funding for UNRWA

A Palestinian woman outside UNRWA's Headquarters in Gaza City.

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The United Nations agency that manages support for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on January 26 that it is starting an investigation into several employees — currently up to 12 — suspected of involvement in the October 7 attacks in Israel by the Islamic militant group Hamas and that those staffers had been fired.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has been briefed about the allegations, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric. “The Secretary-General is horrified by this news,” Dujarric added.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said on January 26, “Any UNRWA employee who was involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.” The involved staffers’ contracts were terminated “to protect the agency’s ability to deliver humanitarian assistance,” said Lazzarini.

Independent news reports indicate that Israel’s Shin Bet, the nation’s domestic intelligence service, and the IDF have provided information that directly pointed to the active participation of UNRWA staffers as well as the use of the agency’s vehicles and facilities in the October 7 terrorist attacks.

A troubled history

UNRWA, which stands for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, was established in 1949; it provides relief and education to Palestinian refugees across the region, not just within Israeli-occupied territories.  With a staff of around 30,000, most of whom are Palestinian refugees themselves, UNRWA is funded by voluntary contributions from UN member states.

The question of why the Palestinians merit a specialized UN agency dedicated to their specific concerns has long been controversial in donor countries as many view the result to be a UN-supported culture of perpetual dependence, keeping the Palestinian state issue politically alive rather than allowing for the gradual resettlement of  Palestinian refugees across the region much as Israel accomplished with large numbers of Jewish refugees who were forcibly ejected from Arab countries after the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.

UNRWA rejects reform while donors ponder next steps

Concerned by UNRWA’s failure to reform to keep its focus on the first generation of conflict refugees only, the Trump administration cut US funding for UNRWA in 2018. That decision was reversed after President Joe Biden took office. UNRWA, however, retains many conservative detractors in the US Congress who will now appear to have been correct in their earlier hawkish approach toward the organization and are already expressing their views on the issue.

Going beyond the temporary US funding pause just put in place, some experts are already calling on Congress to rescind whatever appropriated funds have not actually been delivered to UNRWA, which would signal the strongest possible American vote of no confidence in the UN’s directionless management of the issue. Congressional hearings have been scheduled in Washington for the coming week with former USAID officials already lining up for the international media to voice claims that substantial UNRWA funds were diverted to Hamas military projects like the underground tunnel network.

This subject may become controversial in the 2024 presidential campaign, particularly over linkages to US funding for Gaza’s reconstruction. The result may become a potential lose-lose scenario for the Biden re-election campaign if mishandled.

Global reaction begins

The US and Canada moved quickly to freeze funding for UNRWA, followed rapidly by a growing list of other donor countries including Austria, Australia, Japan, the UK, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland and France, but so far the geopolitically feckless European Union itself has taken no such action, other than to note that its next funding disbursements will be reviewed at the end of February and will take the current UN investigation of UNRWA staff activities into account.

The US was the largest donor to UNRWA in 2022, contributing $340 million.

The Biden administration released a short statement via the Department of State on January 26 emphasizing its concern and listing its recent actions – a temporary funding freeze, congressional briefings, and a call to the UN Secretary-General regarding the issue.

In its official comment, the State Department said:

“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.  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.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on January 25 to emphasize the necessity of a thorough and swift investigation of this matter.  We welcome the decision to conduct such an investigation and Secretary General Guterres’ pledge to take decisive action to respond, should the allegations prove accurate.  We also welcome the UN’s announcement of a “comprehensive and independent” review of UNRWA.  There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7.

UNRWA plays a critical role in providing lifesaving assistance to Palestinians, including essential food, medicine, shelter, and other vital humanitarian support.  Their work has saved lives, and it is important that UNRWA address these allegations and take any appropriate corrective measures, including reviewing its existing policies and procedures.

The United States has reached out to the Government of Israel to seek more information about these allegations, and we have briefed Members of Congress.  We will remain in close contact with the United Nations and the Government of Israel regarding this matter.”

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