US plans to divert UNRWA funds to other UN agencies

Washington froze its support to UNRWA after Israel alleged staff members were involved in October 7 attacks

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The US plans to divert funds for UNRWA to other UN agencies across the Middle East after Congress in March passed legislation that froze funding to the main UN agency for Palestinians for a year.

Some of the UN agencies that will receive the support have already started planning how to use the additional funding, The National has learnt.

A senior humanitarian source in the region said the US plan was an effort to ensure a continuity of support for the Palestinian people, as well as displaying that intent.

A State Department representative highlighted a national security package passed by Congress last month and signed by US President Joe Biden that included $1 billion in funding to support Palestinians in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and the broader Middle East.

“We continue to co-ordinate with other donors, both those that have suspended funding and those continuing to fund UNRWA, as we continue to work to address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza,” the representative told The National.

“We will look to other donors to continue to provide critical funding to UNRWA, as US funding to UNRWA is prohibited by Congress through March 2025.”

UNRWA provides aid, financial support, and health and education services to Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The US, normally UNRWA’s largest donor with about $300 million-$400 million in provisions annually, banned funding to the agency after Israel accused a dozen of its employees of taking part in Hamas’s unprecedented attack in October on southern Israel.

Israel has failed to publicly disclose any evidence that UNRWA staff members were involved in the attacks.

Some of the agencies that look set to receive the funnelled funding are the World Food Programme, the International Organisation for Migration and Unicef, all of which have a presence in Gaza and the wider region.

The US State Department has said it is assessing options for humanitarian aid for Gaza to be redirected to alternative aid groups.

It comes at a critical time in the region, as Israel continues its brutal assault on Gaza. More than 35,700 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave, with no imminent end in sight to the offensive.

Rafah crisis

The US, Israel's most powerful backer, has increasingly voiced its concerns over the intensity of military operations, threatening to halt some arms deliveries following a full-scale Israeli assault on the town of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

Sporadic aid deliveries into Gaza by lorry have slowed to a trickle since Israeli forces took control of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing last week.

“In Gaza, a surge in aid – and swift delivery of that aid – is urgent for more than 2.2 million people, many of whom are on the verge of famine,” the State Department representative said.

“With the passage of the supplemental, and in consultation with Congress, we will immediately advance plans to expand life-saving relief – food, health care, clean water, sanitation services and emergency shelter.”

Israel has repeatedly accused UNRWA of having close ties to Hamas, something the UN agency denies.

Countries including Canada and Australia resumed financial support after the outcome of an initial report into the allegations that several UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks.

The US has highlighted the importance of UNRWA, while also calling for reform within the organisation.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a Congressional panel that “UNRWA plays a critical and necessary role in trying to get humanitarian assistance to people in need in Gaza".

He added: "No one else has the same network, so we want to see these reforms go forward.

"Of course, we have laws that Congress has passed in terms of what we're able to do or not able to do but we believe that UNRWA does play a critical function. And so others may choose to support its efforts but we also want to make sure that the reforms go forward.”

Willy Lowry contributed to this report from Washington

Updated: May 24, 2024, 3:55 AM