After suspending UNRWA funding, US aims to send aid to other groups operating in Gaza

State Department says administration looking at redirecting money to World Food Program, UNICEF and other NGOs, asserting humanitarian assistance will still reach Gazans

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, during a day of meetings about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greeted by UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, during a day of meetings about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

The United States is looking at sending its humanitarian funding for Gaza to other agencies after deciding last month to suspend aid to UNRWA over allegations that 12 of the organization’s staffers participated in the Hamas-led October 7 terror onslaught, the State Department said Monday.

“We’re looking at what options exist for supporting civilians in Gaza through partners like the World Food Program, UNICEF and other NGOs,” deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said during a press briefing. UNICEF is the UN agency that provides humanitarian aid to children worldwide.

The supplemental funding package approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate on Sunday includes roughly $1.4 billion in humanitarian funding for Gaza, with a stipulation preventing any of it going to UNRWA. The legislation’s fate is currently unclear, however, with House Republican leaders vowing to oppose the bill.

“There’s text in this pending legislation that would preclude us from [donating to UNRWA]. We are an administration that follows the law,” Patel said.

However, he clarified the funds would still be used for the same goal. “This is tangible money that we believe will save lives and have a direct impact on Palestinian civilians, and we will redirect funding for UNRWA to other partners to provide assistance in Gaza,” Patel said.

The State Department deputy spokesman reiterated the administration still believes UNRWA’s work is “critical” and is accordingly pushing the UN to expeditiously carry out its probe into UNRWA, so that reforms can be implemented to allow for funding to be restored.

A Palestinian loads a cart with food aid provided by the UN’s World Food Programme, in the Gaza Strip’s al-Shati refugee camp, May 15, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP/ File)

“We believe that we can continue to do important work through other NGOs and other partners and, simultaneously, we’ll continue have conversations with donor countries about supporting UNRWA,” Patel added.

Last week, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that roughly $300,000 earmarked for UNRWA has been withheld following the US decision to suspend funding amid the allegations against the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

Roughly $121 million in US funding was already transferred to UNRWA between October 1 and last Friday’s decision to suspend funding pending an investigation.

Typically, the US provides UNRWA with between $300 and $400 million annually, making it the world’s largest donor to the agency. Former president Donald Trump cut all US funding to UNRWA in 2018, a decision reversed by President Joe Biden after he took office.

The next major payment to UNRWA was not slated to be made until the summer.

Israelis protest against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Jerusalem, Monday, February 5, 2024. (Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo)

UNRWA warned last week that it might be forced to shut down its operations by the end of February if funding does not resume, after over a dozen countries followed Washington’s decision to suspend its financing of the agency.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of an independent panel to assess UNRWA, drawing praise from Jerusalem, which said it would submit materials to the probe.

The announcement came as UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini visited the Gulf in a bid to drum up support for the embattled aid provider in the wake of Israeli intelligence allegedly showing that 12 staff members were involved in the brutal attacks and that hundreds more employees were directly linked to Hamas and other terror groups.

Guterres said in a statement that the UN review board will work in parallel to an internal UN investigation looking into the involvement of UNRWA staff in the October 7 massacre, in which thousands of Palestinian terrorists who stormed into southern Israel killed some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and kidnapped 253 to Gaza.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks on January 23, 2024, at United Nations Headquarters. (AP Photo/ Peter K. Afriyie)

Guterres said it would submit an interim report late next month, followed by a final report a month later, which will be made public.

Amid the allegations compiled by Israel were charges that UNRWA employees kidnapped Israelis, transported ammunition and the body of a dead soldier, and took part in a murderous assault on a kibbutz on October 7.

The UN chief previously said that nine of the 12 staff members implicated by Israel had been terminated, one was dead, and the identities of the other two were being clarified.

Lazzarini and other backers of the group have argued those involved in atrocities are a few bad apples among some 13,000 employees in Gaza, maintaining that shuttering the entire agency would amount to collective punishment.

A senior Israeli official briefing The Times of Israel last week said Jerusalem supports the decisions made by countries to suspend funding and does not think UNRWA should continue operating in Gaza after the war. However, given that is is the main agency currently distributing aid to Palestinians in Gaza, its immediate dissolution would risk a humanitarian catastrophe that would force the IDF to halt its fighting against Hamas. Accordingly, the official said Israel does not support the immediate dismantlement of UNRWA.

A second source familiar with the matter security official echoed that point, while clarifying that ministers would likely continue speaking out against UNRWA due to their own “domestic political considerations.”

The 12 staffers at UNRWA alleged to have been involved in the October 7 onslaught. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Also Monday, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana landed in Washington for meetings with senior US officials. His first sit-down was with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House.

Ohana told Sullivan that Hamas must be completely destroyed and that Israel “appreciates the support of the US from the beginning of the war, particularly the efforts that are being made to bring back the hostages, including US citizens,” according to the Israeli readout.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana (left) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington on February 5, 2024. (Knesset Spokesman)

Ohana said that “these are critical days which will determine the fate of the entire region,” pointing to escalations by the Houthis and other Iran-backed militias, including against US forces and international shipping routes.

The Knesset speaker also met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, along with a number of family members of the hostages.

Ohana is slated to meet US House Speaker Mike Johnson at the Capitol on Tuesday.

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