Palestinians receive aid from UNRWA

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2024.

(Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez: US Should Restore UNRWA Funding 'Immediately'

"Among an organization of 13,000 U.N. aid workers, risking the starvation of millions over grave allegations of 12 is indefensible," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Monday urged the Biden administration to restore funding for the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency without delay and condemned the decision to suspend aid as an act of collective punishment.

"Cutting off support to UNRWA—the primary source of humanitarian aid to 2 million+ Gazans—is unacceptable," Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on social media. "Among an organization of 13,000 U.N. aid workers, risking the starvation of millions over grave allegations of 12 is indefensible. The U.S. should restore aid immediately."

The U.S. State Department announced last week that it would temporarily pause any additional funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East as it reviews Israel's allegations that a dozen of the agency's employees were involved in Hamas' October 7 attack on southern Israel.

Several countries have followed the U.S. in suspending aid to the UNRWA, including Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan, putting the agency's critical operations in Gaza at risk of total collapse.

Observers noted that the U.S. and other Israel allies were quick to suspend aid to the UNRWA but have refused to cut off military assistance to the Israeli government despite the overwhelming evidence that it is committing war crimes in Gaza.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Sunday that nine of the 12 UNRWA employees that Israel accused of taking part in the October 7 attack have been fired, one is confirmed dead, and the "identity of the two others is being clarified."

Guterres pledged that "any U.N. employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution"—but warned that funding cutoffs to the entire UNRWA over the alleged actions of a handful of employees could have dire consequences for starving, desperate Gazans who depend on the agency's assistance.

The UNRWA's current funding levels are only enough to sustain its Gaza operations through February, Guterres said.

"While I understand their concerns—I was myself horrified by these accusations—I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA's operations," the U.N. chief added. "The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences. But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met."

Israel's allegations against the dozen UNRWA employees are laid out in a dossier that the Netanyahu government has reportedly provided to the Biden administration.

The New York Timesreported Sunday that one UNRWA worker "is accused of kidnapping a woman", another "is said to have handed out ammunition," and a "third was described as taking part in the massacre at a kibbutz where 97 people died."

A majority of those accused were teachers at UNRWA schools, according to the Times. Others were described as a clerk, a social worker, and a storeroom manager.

"Two Western officials confirmed on the condition of anonymity that they had been briefed on the contents of the dossier in recent days, but said they had not been able to verify the details," the Times reported. "Although the United States has yet to corroborate the Israeli claims itself, American officials say they found them credible enough to warrant suspending aid."

In a statement on Saturday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said it is "shocking to see a suspension of funds to the Agency in reaction to allegations against a small group of staff, especially given the immediate action that UNRWA took by terminating their contracts and asking for a transparent independent investigation."

"UNRWA is the primary humanitarian agency in Gaza, with over 2 million people depending on it for their sheer survival," said Lazzarini. "Many are hungry as the clock is ticking towards a looming famine. The agency runs shelters for over 1 million people and provides food and primary healthcare even at the height of the hostilities."

Lazzarini stressed that the UNRWA "shares the list of all its staff with host countries every year, including Israel," and has "never received any concerns on specific staff members."

"It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement, and political crises in the region," he continued. "I urge countries who have suspended their funding to re-consider their decisions before UNRWA is forced to suspend its humanitarian response."

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