Frozen US funding for UNRWA in Gaza is minimal, State Department says


The State Department on Tuesday downplayed its decision to suspend funding for the main U.N. aid agency in Gaza, explaining that it had already provided virtually all of the money appropriated by Congress for that purpose and that the Biden administration expected that the matter could be resolved. quickly.

More than 99 percent of the US dollars approved by Congress for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) have been sent to the agency, State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday, Matthew Miller.

The State Department Paused the money “temporarily” Friday following accusations from Israel that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, with some holding hostages inside Gaza. At least 17 other donor countries have also suspended their funding to the agency, according the UN Watch group.

Human rights groups and progressive Democrats in Congress have denounced the measure, saying it will deprive innocent Palestinians of the help they desperately need. But Miller said the State Department had sent the agency all but $300,000 of some $121 million budgeted for UNRWA, suggesting the short-term effect of U.S. action inside Gaza will be minor.

U.S. officials suggested the real question is how much more money Congress will be willing to approve for an agency that many Republicans condemn for what they call anti-Israel bias and Hamas sympathies. Underscoring that uncertainty, witnesses in a House subcommittee hearing On Tuesday he denounced UNRWA and called for its restructuring or replacement.

Israel’s government says at least 12 agency employees participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, and that UNRWA employs up to 1,300 Hamas members. Israel estimates that the attack left approximately 1,200 dead; another 240 people were taken hostage.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States had not independently confirmed the allegations but considered them “highly credible.”

Before the Israeli accusations, the State Department had planned to schedule its next payment to UNRWA in early summer, although a prolonged budget impasse in Congress leaves it unclear when a new State Department budget could be approved. And even then, the money must win the support of Republicans who were hostile to UNRWA even before its alleged links to the attack on Israel emerged.

Before any new money approved by Congress reaches UNRWA, the State Department must end its declared pause on any funding for the agency. Miller said the timing of this “will depend on the investigation that UNRWA is carrying out, that the UN is carrying out and the actions that are taken.” He said Biden administration officials hoped that could happen “quickly,” because “we are very supportive of the work that UNRWA does. “We believe it is essential.”

His comments came amid anger over the decision by donor countries to suspend their support for UNRWA. In a statement on Monday, Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said she was “shocking, in fact inhuman”, that governments, including the United States, had suspended their funding. He noted that the dozen employees who were laid off were part of a UNRWA staff of 30,000. (According to UNRWA, at least 152 agency personnel have been killed in Israel’s military operation in Gaza.)

And several progressives condemned the Biden administration’s move, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who said in a statement Tuesday that “we cannot allow millions to suffer because of the actions of 12 people. “The United States and other countries must restore funding to prevent this humanitarian catastrophe.”

While the amount the United States is withholding is a small fraction of UNRWA’s roughly $1.2 billion annual budget, agency officials warn that freezing funds by numerous donor countries together could threaten humanitarian work. of the group. In most years, the United States has been UNRWA’s largest individual donor, but other donors collectively provide the majority of the agency’s annual budget.

In mid-October, President Biden also announced $100 million in emergency aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which the White House said in a statement it would be provided “through trusted partners, including UN agencies” and international non-governmental organizations.

In Washington, the issue of UNRWA funding has taken on partisan overtones. For years, Republicans have echoed Israeli complaints that UNRWA employees sympathize with Palestinian militants and have allowed weapons to be stored in their facilities. (UNRWA has denied many of those allegations over the years.)

President Trump cut off all U.S. funding for UNRWA in 2018. Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday, Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, took credit to persuade him. “I know UNRWA well,” she said, arguing that schools affiliated with the agency taught “terrorist hatred against Israelis.”

“For years, there has been abundant evidence that UNRWA is not a neutral arbiter and that its anti-Israel bias is widespread and systemic,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. said in a statement last week. “However, the Biden administration inexplicably restarted funding for the organization in 2021.”

Blinken became entangled in the thorny issue just before the Hamas attacks. Last fall, Republicans temporarily blocked $75 million in food assistance budgeted for UNRWA in Gaza. Amid warnings of mass hunger, Blinken bypassed Republican control and released the money.

The State Department did not publicly announce the action, but a US branch of UNRWA did. thanked Mr. Blinken on social media On October 3rd. Hamas militants breached Gaza’s border fence with Israel four days later.

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