UNRWA crisis a matter of ‘absolute urgency’, Barbara Leaf says

US suspended funding following allegations some staff members were involved in October 7 attack on Israel

Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, has said an investigation into the allegations against some UNRWA employees must be carried out with the 'greatest speed and thoroughness'. Reuters
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Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said on Thursday that the investigation into the UN agency for Palestinian refugees must happen quickly, as the UNRWA faces a funding crisis that could force it to halt operations this month.

The UNRWA is facing its biggest crisis since its founding in 1949, after 12 staff members were accused of involvement in the October 7 Hamas attacks against Israel. Following the claims, the US announced it would halt funding to the agency.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has ordered an investigation and an independent assessment of the claims.

“It is critical that that be done with the greatest speed and thoroughness,” Ms Leaf told reporters, saying that dealing with the crisis was a matter of “absolute urgency” for the US government.

The UNRWA said it would likely have to shut down its operations in the Middle East by the end February if funding does not resume.

The US contributed $343.9 million to the agency's $1.2 billion budget last year. Many other countries as well as the EU have also paused funds, including second-highest donor Germany, which contributed $202.1 million in 2023.

Ms Leaf acknowledged the important role that the UNRWA plays in Gaza but said allegations against the staff members were extremely grave.

“There's an urgency for several things. One is to get to the bottom of these extraordinarily serious and really terrible allegations that members of a mission that is dedicated to humanitarian support … would be involved in the horrendous attacks of October 7 is really just terrible,” Ms Leaf said.

The decision by US President Joe Biden's administration to suspend the UNRWA funding has galvanised Republicans in Congress, some of whom have long opposed Washington's support for the agency, accusing it of pushing anti-Semitic or anti-Israel curriculums in schools it runs.

Brian Mast, the Republican congressman leading the charge to permanently “abolish” the agency, this week co-sponsored the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024“.

If passed, it 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.".

Democrats are toeing a more careful line. 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 it's functions.

Updated: February 02, 2024, 5:46 AM