US set to place one-year ban on UNRWA funds, while leaving door open to future

Spending bill Congress slated to pass redirects $175 million to other West Bank and Gaza projects amid allegations that some of UN agency’s staffers participated in Oct. 7 attacks

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

Israelis protest against United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) outside their offices in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Israelis protest against United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) outside their offices in Jerusalem, March 13, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

A massive appropriations package Congress is set to pass on Friday will include a one-year ban on US funding to UNRWA, in the latest blow to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees following allegations earlier this year that 12 of its employees actively participated in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught and that many others have ties to terror groups.

The text of the legislation states that UNRWA funding will be banned “for any amounts provided in prior fiscal years or in fiscal year 2024 or for amounts provided in fiscal year 2025, until March 25, 2025.”

The clause is separated from the rest of the appropriations package and is stipulated as a calendar-year ban, which leaves open the potential for allocating any leftover funds to UNRWA after March 2025. Had it been a fiscal-year ban, there would not be any opportunity to fund UNRWA before October 2025. Moreover, it would’ve set a precedent much harder for Congress to overcome in subsequent spending packages.

“The UNRWA ban punted the decision to whoever is in power in March 2025 to either fund or not fund the agency,” said Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

“The legislative ban is an irregular one because it extends beyond the annual appropriations cycle into only half of the next year. Practically, this means that an administration could decide to fund UNRWA if Congress can’t agree on a budget next year,” he added.

In Congress, though, resuming UNRWA funding in subsequent spending bills will likely be much more difficult, given that a growing number of moderate Democrats have joined Republicans in souring on the agency since the latest allegations against its staffers came out.

US President Joe Biden (2nd right) speaks during a meeting with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, February 27, 2024. From left, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, of Louisiana, US Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden, and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Instead of funding UNRWA, the appropriations bills set to be passed Friday earmarks $175 million in funds for other humanitarian projects in the West Bank and Gaza, which will go through the US Agency for International Development.

The figure is a $50 million slash from last year, as part of a package that saw cuts across the board.

Some Democrats sought to block the UNRWA ban, arguing that it is currently the primary agency providing aid to Palestinians in war-torn Gaza. But the progressives were vastly outnumbered in negotiations and will be outnumbered in Friday’s vote as well.

“This will undermine the effort to assist starving Gazans and potentially further weaken regional stability,” UNRWA said in a statement earlier this week.

The US froze its funding immediately after the Israeli allegations emerged against UNRWA staffers, all of whom were quickly fired by the agency.

The US has historically been the leading donor to UNRWA, giving between $300 and $400 million a year — save for a three-year period during the Trump administration when all funding was cut.

From the start of the latest fiscal year in October until the January freeze, the Biden administration gave $121 million to UNRWA.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in January that roughly $300,000 earmarked for UNRWA had been withheld as a result of the freeze, adding that Washington was looking to divert the funds to other agencies such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, the relief agency for children.

Neither is believed to be equipped to distribute funds at the scale UNRWA can, given the massive discrepancies in local Gaza staff.

UNRWA was established in 1949 by a UN General Assembly resolution after Israel’s War of Independence, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.

Today, it directly employs 30,000 Palestinians, serving the civic and humanitarian needs of 5.9 million descendants of those refugees, in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and in vast camps in neighboring Arab countries.

In Gaza, UNRWA runs the enclave’s schools, primary healthcare clinics and other social services, and distributes humanitarian aid.

A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the UNRWA distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

US support is believed to account for one-third of UNRWA’s budget, raising questions as to whether the agency will be able to overcome the cut in the long term.

The US led 14 countries that announced the January freeze on funding to UNRWA, which employs roughly 13,000 people in Gaza and is the main supplier of food, water and shelter there.

A handful of those countries, including Canada, Finland and Australia, have since announced resumptions to their funding amid growing fears of imminent famine in Gaza.

The US said it would wait until a UN independent review panel concluded its probe into UNRWA before resuming its already-allocated donations.

On Tuesday, that panel issued an interim report determining that UNRWA has mechanisms in place to ensure its neutrality, but also has deficiencies that must be addressed.

Next, the review board will develop its final report with recommendations for how UNRWA should address neutrality concerns going forward and present it to the public on April 20.

This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli army on February 8, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel has long pushed for UNRWA’s closure, arguing that it helps perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians since it confers refugee status upon descendants of those originally displaced around the time of Israel’s War of Independence, unlike other refugee groups around the world.

The agency has also been found to employ antisemitic staffers and use textbooks Israel deemed antisemitic and inciteful.

UNRWA fired 12 of its employees in January after it received evidence from Israel that they participated in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught. But Israel has since offered what it says is intelligence to stakeholders showing that some 1,200 of UNRWA’s 13,000 staffers have ties to Gaza terrorists.

A senior European diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Jerusalem is “cynically” making such allegations in order to force UNRWA’s dissolution, after never taking issue with the employee lists it received from the agency in previous years.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed this account, telling The Times of Israel that the lists it received from UNRWA were partial, did not contain ID numbers necessary for vetting the employees and were sometimes sent a full year after staffers began working for the agency.

Nonetheless, Israel identified Hamas activists on UNRWA’s payroll on several occasions. In 2012, Israel alerted UNRWA that one of its principals, Sohail al-Hindi, was a Hamas activist, but it took until after Hindi’s election to Hamas’s politburo in 2017 for UNRWA to fire him, according to the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

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