Israel has accused multiple employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) of having links to the militant group Hamas and facilitating a deadly attack in October 2022. This has led several countries, including the United States, to suspend or cut funding to the agency.
Israel Releases Dossier with Detailed Allegations
On January 29th, Israel’s UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, shared a 50-page dossier with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres alleging that several UNRWA employees were active members of Hamas and helped facilitate an attack on October 7th that killed three Israelis.
The dossier specifically names 12 employees of UNRWA’s Gaza operations, claiming they were involved in various Hamas operations including:
- Gathering intelligence
- Building rockets
- Allowing Hamas to store weapons and launch rockets from UNRWA facilities
- Transferring aid and supplies to Hamas
Additionally, the dossier cites over 100 unnamed UNRWA employees with alleged ties to Hamas based on Israeli intelligence. Israel claims up to 190 total UN employees actively participated in terrorist operations.
In a letter to Guterres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded the immediate firing of UN staff implicated in the allegations and stated that UNRWA has been “totally infiltrated by Hamas.” He called the agency “irredeemably rotten” and pushed for it to be fully dismantled.
The UN has said it is reviewing the dossier and “taking the allegations very seriously” but has not announced any actions yet regarding specific employees or leadership changes. UNRWA itself stated it was “shocked by the allegations” and denied any complicity with militant groups.
Multiple Countries Suspend UNRWA Funding
In the wake of the allegations, Israel’s allies have moved quickly to freeze or end financial support for UNRWA.
The United States announced on January 30th that it is placing a “temporary pause” on $60 million in planned funding for UNRWA and will conduct a review before releasing the aid. This comes after the U.S. gave $122 million to UNRWA since last October. Overall the U.S. provides approx. 30% of UNRWA’s total budget.
Canada also halted its $10 million contribution, with its ambassador saying “Canada has asked UNRWA for more transparency”. Other countries suspending funding include Australia, Netherlands, and Switzerland.
Critics Blast “Collective Punishment” of Palestinians
However, many critics and humanitarian groups have asserted that limiting UNRWA’s funding harms Palestinian refugees more than Hamas. Over 5 million Palestinians depend on UNRWA’s services like healthcare, education, and food aid.
The EU’s foreign policy chief said “A way must be found to continue delivering aid without interruption” and over 100 Democratic members of Congress urged President Biden to restore funding.
Background on UNRWA and October Attack
UNRWA was established in 1949 to provide aid and public services to Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It operates schools, healthcare facilities, and civilian infrastructure like water and power networks across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The agency has faced frequent accusations of anti-Israel bias and employees supporting militant groups. UNRWA insists it maintains neutrality and that it screens staff members against UN terrorist watch lists.
On October 7th, 2022, a Palestinian militant fired on a restaurant in Tel Aviv, killing three Israeli civilians. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack which came during rising tensions between Israel and Gaza militants.
According to the Israeli dossier, the UNRWA employees named provided material support like intelligence, funding, transportation and hiding places to the Hamas gunman prior to the restaurant attack.
What Happens Next?
It remains unclear how drastically UNRWA’s operations may be impacted if countries refuse to restore funding contributions. The agency was already struggling financially and warned it only has enough cash reserves to continue major services until mid-2024.
- Without an immediate cash infusion, UNRWA will be forced to halt food support for over 1 million Gazans in coming months. Hundreds of thousands of students may see school years shortened or interrupted.
- There are increasing calls within Israel and among Republicans in Congress to abolish UNRWA altogether now regardless of the UN investigation’s conclusions. However experts warn this risks further destabilizing Gaza and radicalizing Palestinian refugees.
- Much depends on the Biden administration’s response – whether it permanently ends UNRWA contributions or works out a compromise like additional financial oversight. Signs currently point to the White House aiming for middle ground rather than fully cutting off the agency.
In the short-term, tensions between Israel and Gaza militants could escalate especially if ongoing UN investigation provides further evidence corroborating alleged UNRWA staff misconduct. Any potential flare up in violence carries high risk of civilian casualties on both sides.
Ultimately the fate UNRWA itself depends on rebuilding trust and consensus between Western donors, Israel, and humanitarian groups who up till now have seen supporting Palestinian refugees as vital to regional security and development. With those disparate interests now seemingly at odds, forging a sustainable way forward for the agency poses a significant diplomatic challenge.
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