US defends aid to UNRWA despite rocket caches

Washington critics of $15 million grant cite longtime allegations regarding UN group’s proximity to Hamas

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

John Kerry speaking on June 19. (photo credit: US State Department)
John Kerry speaking on June 19. (photo credit: US State Department)

WASHINGTON — The State Department defended Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to grant $15 million in humanitarian aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), even as the organization confirmed the discovery of additional rockets stored in one of its Gaza schools. Critics in Washington, however, blasted the secretary’s decision to include UNRWA as a recipient of part of a $47 million humanitarian package designed to aid Gazan civilians.

Israel has long raised eyebrows at the organization, a permanent UN agency separate from the international body’s general refugee relief agency. On Tuesday, UNRWA confirmed that it had found a second major cache of rockets hidden in one of the organization’s schools.

“UNRWA has long overstepped its mandate and has been acting as a political entity with an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic agenda, and the United States shouldn’t be funding it at all. UNRWA has a long history of incitement against Israel in its schools and it certainly has its hands dirty with its ties to Hamas, as Hamas operatives dominate UNRWA’s unions,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) on the morning after the announcement.

Ros-Lehtinen pointed to an incident last week in which 20 rockets were discovered hidden in a UNRWA school in Gaza as evidence of the organization’s complicity. After discovering the rockets, UNRWA handed them over to “local authorities” in the Hamas-run territory.

“Perhaps UNRWA didn’t physically place those rockets in its school, but its ties to Hamas certainly have caused it to have a blind spot when it comes to terrorist activities taking place in its schools and camps, so it’s just as culpable,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official at a Washington pro-Israel organization described the announcement of funding for UNRWA as “a bewildering decision.” UNRWA announced last week an effort to raise $60 million in emergency aid to Gaza, one-quarter of which would be covered by the US contribution.

“UNRWA is objectively on the side of Hamas,” the official argued. “They give Hamas money, they do press work on behalf of Hamas, and as of this week they’re literally arming Hamas. Our Arab and Israeli allies all want Hamas and its supporters weakened. It’s very strange that the State Department would rush in, right when we’re asking the region to trust us on Iran, and functionally throw money at a terror organization that Iran has done so much to build up over the years.”

But State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the organization was a legitimate recipient for US aid, arguing that “it is an important organization.”

Harf said that the State Department had discussed the discovery of Thursday’s rocket cache with UNRWA, and told the organization that they did not consider UNRWA’s decision to turn the rockets over to “local authorities” “a good outcome.”

“UNRWA is a humanitarian organization operating in a very difficult environment,” Harf said. “It is a relief organization, it is not a peacekeeping organization that can deal with rockets.”

Harf emphasized that the US was “working with them to come up with better solutions” and are “looking at what acceptable outcomes might look like in the future,” but — even as reports emerged that a second cache had been discovered — did not delineate what the US expected UNRWA protocol to entail.

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