update deskU.S.-Israel Relations

White House: Don’t impugn UNRWA’s ‘good work’ due to ‘potential bad actions’ of a few

"The minority of states still funding UNRWA despite revelations of its staff's involvement in the Oct. 7 massacre must suspend funds immediately," said Eylon Levy, an Israeli spokesman.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks to reporters at the White House, Oct. 3, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks to reporters at the White House, Oct. 3, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.

John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council of the White House, lauded UNRWA’s “good work” on Monday, amid mounting evidence that more than 1,000 employees of the U.N. agency are members of terrorist organizations.

“I haven’t seen any information that affirmatively makes that case, that it’s more than, now, 13.  I think last week, we were looking at a dozen.  That’s why an investigation is so dang important here, so that we can look at the scope of the problem set,” Kirby said during the White House’s press briefing.

“But you got 13,000 UNRWA employees—the U.N. Relief and Works Agency—you’ve got 13,000 of them in Gaza alone,” Kirby added. “Let’s not impugn the good work of a whole agency because of the potential bad actions here by a small number.”

Kirby,  a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, added that he was not dismissing “the seriousness of the allegations against those employees. And whether there’s going to be more that will be found, hopefully the investigation will give us more insight.”

In a separate interview with NBC‘s “Today” show on Monday, Kirby said that UNRWA has been doing “a lot of amazing work on the ground in Gaza, literally helping save thousands of lives.”

“They’re taking this seriously. They brought the information to us, by the way,” he said. “They let us know that they had this report about a dozen employees who were somehow involved in Oct. 7. They’re taking this very, very seriously. They’ve called for an investigation.”

Shortly after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden restored millions in UNRWA funding that had been cut under former president Donald Trump. In 2023, Washington contributed $422 million to the U.N. agency, making the United States the largest U.N. donor.

Political leaders and watchdog groups have long noted that UNRWA, which serves as the U.N.’s Palestinian-exclusive agency for refugees and their descendants in perpetuity, promotes educational material that are antisemitic and incite violence.

The U.S. State Department  announced that it was suspending additional funding to UNRWA on Friday, following allegations that 12 UNRWA staff members participatd in Hamas’s massacre of some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in Israel on Oct. 7.

At least 15 other countries have since followed suit.

Washington will consider resuming its funding to the agency after “fundamental changes” are implemented, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on Tuesday.

“We need to look at the organization, how it operates in Gaza, how they manage their staff and to ensure that people who commit criminal acts, such as these 12 individuals, are held accountable immediately so that UNRWA can continue the essential work that it is doing,” Thomas-Greenfield told reporters on Tuesday.

Earlier in the week, The Wall Street Journal cited Israeli intelligence findings that one in 10 UNRWA workers has Hamas or Islamic Jihad ties. The report, based on interrogations of captured Hamas operatives and documents recovered from Gaza, also said that some 6,500 have close relatives who are members of terror groups.

“Our intelligence indicates that out of approximately 12,000 UNRWA employees in the Gaza Strip, about 10% are Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives, and another 50% are first-degree relatives of a Hamas operative,” the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday.

Jerusalem spelled out three demands in a press briefing dedicated to the U.N. agency and which laid out how UNRWA aids Hamas.

Israel insisted that UNRWA be defunded, that its leadership resign or be dismissed and that it lose its educational role in the Gaza Strip.

“The minority of states still funding UNRWA despite revelations of its staff’s involvement in the Oct. 7 massacre must suspend funds immediately,” said Eylon Levy, spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office.

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