US pauses UNRWA funding after allegations workers were involved in Hamas attack

UN Secretary General 'horrified' by allegations

The entrance to the UNRWA warehouse in Deir Al Balah, Gaza. Agency head Philippe Lazzarini said employees accused of misconduct have been sacked and an investigation is to follow. Bloomberg
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The US State Department on Friday halted additional funding for UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, following allegations that 12 employees may have been involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

“The Department of State has temporarily paused additional funding for UNRWA [UN Relief and Works Agency] while we review these allegations and the steps the United Nations is taking to address them,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Canada also suspended funding to the agency but would “continue to work with other partners to provide life-saving assistance to civilians in Gaza”, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen said. Ottawa in June announced $100 million in funding for UNRWA over a period of four years.

Australia and Italy followed suit on Saturday, with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong saying the allegations against UNRWA employees were “deeply concerning” and that funding for the agency would be “temporarily paused”.

Ms Wong had announced an additional $21.5 million funding for humanitarian assistance, including $6 million for UNRWA to provide “urgent lifesaving assistance including food, shelter and emergency health care” during a visit to the Middle East last week.

Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani announced his government's suspension of funding to UNRWA in a post on X.

"Allied countries have recently made the same decision. We are committed to humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian population, protecting Israel's security," Mr Tajani said.

Shortly before the US announcement, UNRWA said it had opened an investigation into several employees suspected of involvement in the attacks and that it had severed ties with those staff members.

“The Israeli authorities have provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of several UNRWA employees in the horrific attacks on Israel on October 7,” said agency head Philippe Lazzarini.

“To protect the agency's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, I have taken the decision to immediately terminate the contracts of these staff members and launch an investigation in order to establish the truth without delay,” he said.

More than two million people in Gaza depend on assistance that UNWRA has been providing since the war began.

“Anyone who betrays the fundamental values of the United Nations also betrays those whom we serve in Gaza, across the region and elsewhere around the world,” Mr Lazzarini said.

UN Secretary General António Guterres's spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement that the UN chief has been briefed by Mr Lazzarini regarding the “extremely serious” allegations.

Mr Guterres is “horrified by this news” and has called for UNRWA to conduct an “urgent and comprehensive independent review”, Mr Dujarric said.

He told reporters that Mr Guterres had learnt of the allegations earlier in the week.

He said It was necessary to brief several member states and principal donors before the information could be disclosed to the public.

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly. Its mandate is to provide assistance and protection for some 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Since the start of Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, the UN agency has provided aid and used its facilities to shelter Palestinians fleeing bombardment.

The agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states.

The US has long been the largest individual donor to UNRWA, pledging about one third of the agency’s $1.1bn annual budget.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said UNRWA's work has “literally saved thousands of lives in Gaza” and added that the Biden administration would consider additional measures against the agency.

“But that doesn't impugn the entire organisation,” Mr Kirby told reporters at the White House.

“We'll certainly consider additional [measures], depending on the investigation, whether that requires any additional changes in the way we support them going forward.”

The UN agency has been significantly exposed to the varying political policies of successive US governments.

In 2018, the Trump administration halted its financial support for UNRWA, reversing a policy of support by every American president – Republican and Democrat – since its creation.

The decision to withdraw funding was explained as a call to encourage Palestinians to resume peace negotiations with Israel.

In line with his campaign commitment, President Joe Biden declared Washington's intentions to reinstate $290 million in aid to the Palestinians, a reversal of the Trump suspension.

The US contributed $344 million in support of Palestine refugees in 2022, and in 2023 announced a contribution of $153.7 million.

Jihan Abdalla in Washington contributed to this report

Updated: January 27, 2024, 10:30 AM