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‘Congress has made it clear: US funding to UNRWA will stop’

Based on congressional mandates so far, the funding cut is “not a suspension. It is a prohibition," said U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues David Satterfield.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), during a visit at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), during a visit at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

American funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has been stopped for good in the wake of Congressional legislation, a top U.S. envoy said on Friday.

Speaking during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues David Satterfield said that there is “clear bipartisan congressional intent” to end funding to the agency, and that alternative U.N. agencies are being considered to take over UNRWA’s humanitarian roles in the Gaza Strip.

“Congress has made clear … that U.S. funding for UNRWA will stop,” said Satterfield. “It’s not a suspension. It is a prohibition on providing further funding.”

The remarks follow a bombshell Israeli intelligence report, shared with the U.S. administration, which showed that dozens of UNRWA employees actively participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, while 10% of the agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza are Hamas members.

The revelations prompted a number of countries, led by the United States and Germany, UNRWA’s biggest donors, to suspend funding to the agency totaling $438 million, or more than half this year’s expected funding.

A Senate-approved version of a bill to fund aid to Ukraine and Israel which received wide bipartisan support contains a passage barring funding for the agency.

At the same time, the United States wants UNRWA’s functions of aid delivery and support to Palestinians to continue, said Satterfield.

“We believe that the functions being provided by UNRWA right now that are relevant to the situation in Gaza; the delivery of assistance; the logistics and management of that delivery; the feeding programs that UNRWA itself manages, as opposed to delivering to others; the system of medical care UNRWA directly provides; the shelter program, those need to be sustained,” he said.

“And the way to sustain them in this situation, given our own suspension, given the congressional—so far—mandates that UNRWA will not be funded in the future, is to find a way to continue the UNRWA functions,” he continued.

The United States is working “aggressively as possible” with the United Nations to determine how to do this, said Satterfield.

On Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant released new revelations of UNRWA malpractice, saying Israeli intelligence had “significant indications” that more than 30 additional agency workers joined the Oct. 7 attack. One video released this weekend showed an UNRWA worker participating in the kidnapping of a body from an Israeli agricultural community near the border with Gaza.

Seeking alternatives to UNRWA

Amid a groundswell of national and international concern over the U.N. agency’s connection to Palestinian terrorism, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is proposing to redirect aid to the Palestinians through the World Food Program, an organization within the United Nations that provides food assistance worldwide.

Another option under consideration, pending American support, is funneling the support through USAID, an independent agency of the United States government primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance and which has carried out smaller aid activity in Gaza.

Amid near-daily revelations of new intelligence information about UNRWA’s ties to terrorism, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz has repeatedly called upon the UNRWA chief to resign.

UNRWA pushback

Pushing back, the head of UNRWA Philippe Lazzarini has refused to step down, and alleged that Israel is intent on “destroying” the organization along with the idea that Palestinians are refugees and have a right to return home one day.

“At the moment, we are dealing with an expanded, concentrated Israeli campaign, which is aimed at destroying UNRWA,” Lazzarini said in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger published on Saturday.

Lazzarini, who has served as UNRWA’s commissioner-general since 2020, said Israel apparently believes that “if the aid agency is abolished, the status of the Palestinian refugees will be resolved once and for all—and with it the right of return.”

Following the aid suspension by nearly 20 Western countries, he has sought additional funding from Arab gulf countries to keep the organization running.

Perpetuating the conflict

Israel has long argued that UNRWA was created to perpetuate the conflict by granting Palestinians hereditary refugee status, a status afforded no other global population.

Established by the United Nations in 1949 to carry out relief and work programs for the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who fled their homes during the 1948-49 War of Independence, UNRWA grants refugee status to those refugees’ descendants in perpetuity, including those with citizenship in other countries. As a result, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with the organization has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to nearly six million today.

The main U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for the rest of the refugees in the world, has no such policy.

Foreign funding

Citing decades of hate and terror indoctrination, the Trump administration cut U.S. funding to UNRWA in 2018, a move President Joe Biden reversed shortly after taking office in 2021.

Last summer, the U.S. State Department allocated more than $200 million for UNRWA despite its schools’ glorification of violence and terrorism and an agreement conditioning funding on the prevention of teaching hate and antisemitism.

The funding brought the total United States assistance to UNRWA during the Biden administration to more than $600 million, cementing the United States’ status as UNRWA’s largest donor.

The Oct. 7 massacre has placed renewed international focus on UNRWA’s terror ties and led to calls from across the Israeli political spectrum to cut all ties with the organization, while the heads of the agency, backed by the E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borell, seek to salvage the agency with an investigation into the wrongdoing.

But after decades of on-again off-again criticism of UNRWA, the wealth of intelligence information uncovered during military operations in Gaza following the Hamas massacre have called the continued existence of the organization in question as never before.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited U.S. special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues David Satterfield as stating that U.S. funding to UNRWA had been permanently halted.

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