Republicans, long sceptical of UNRWA, seize moment of Biden funding cut

New bill would permanently slash US contributions to the Palestinian relief agency or any 'successor entity'

Brian Mast, a Republican congressman from Florida and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee, speaks during a meeting in Washington. Bloomberg
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The Republican congressman leading the charge to permanently “abolish” the UN agency for Palestinian refugees as the Israel-Gaza war continues says he is sending “letter after letter” to the head of UNRWA, asking him to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Brian Mast, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee, said UNRWA chief Phillipe Lazzarini should appear before the body that "has oversight over the largest amount of support that they receive from anywhere around the globe”.

UNRWA declined to participate in a subcommittee hearing this week, as it investigates Israeli allegations that 12 of its staff played a part in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

The US, Japan and other countries halted their contributions to the Palestinian relief organisation in response, over the protests of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who described the agency as “the backbone of all humanitarian response in Gaza”.

Mr Mast said, however, that UNRWA “would be willing to meet in a private meeting".

“Which is amazing for an entity that has received hundreds of millions of American dollars that I personally believe they should not receive one penny of,” he told The National on Thursday.

Director of the Palestinian relief agency's Washington office, William Deere, declined on behalf of Mr Lazzarini to appear due to “UN privileges and immunities” and “the security risks to our staff posed by answering certain questions in an unclassified setting".

Mr Deere defended the agency in his response, asserting: “The agency is constantly on-guard to maintain its humanitarian space, which UNRWA must have in order to provide services to Palestine refugees living in one of the most complex humanitarian settings.

"Despite the massive challenges imposed by a conflict of such a scale, the agency continues to work to ensure the neutrality of its installations.”

Republicans in Congress, many of whom have long opposed UNRWA, have seized the opportunity of President Joe Biden's decision to cut US contributions and have ramped up efforts to crack down on the Palestinian relief organisation over claims it harbours militants and anti-Semites.

Mr Mast has also led the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024“, which if passed would ban any “voluntary or involuntary” US contributions to the Palestinian relief organisation and, importantly, “to any successor or related entity, or to the regular budget of the United Nations for the support of UNRWA or a successor entity".

The Republican conceded that even if Mr Lazzarini were to come before the committee, he would not be able to sway his position that UNRWA should be permanently defunded and abolished.

“The idea of reforming UNRWA would be like saying we should work to reform the Nazi party,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee defended the Biden administration's decision to cut the funding, but argued there is currently “no substitute” for its functions.

“This is very, very troubling information that has come forward. We know it's more widespread than just the numbers that we've heard to date. So this is an issue that demands a full investigation and accountability,” Senator Ben Cardin told The National on Thursday.

But there are no other organisations, he says, “that have anywhere close to the capacity” to serve the people of Gaza.

“So in the short term, we need to utilise that network that's there,” he added.

UNRWA was established in 1949 by the UN General Assembly.

Its mandate is to provide assistance and protection for about 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Sigrid Kaag, senior humanitarian and reconstruction co-ordinator for Gaza, told reporters this week that the organisation cannot be “replaced or substituted".

As of May of 2022, UNRWA forecasted a “major shortfall against its programme budget and emergency appeals”, including a carry-over of $62 million in liabilities on its programme budget “due to insufficient financial contributions and increased needs due to the negative socioeconomic impact of Ccovid-19".

Adla Massoud in New York contributed to this report

Updated: February 01, 2024, 6:02 PM