Washington says ‘real progress’ needed before restoring UNRWA funding

White House welcomes independent report that rebuffed Israel’s claim staff are linked to terror; agency head calls for UNSC probe into ‘blatant disregard’ for UN operations in Gaza

Damaged headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on February 15, 2024, amid ongoing Israel-Hamas war. (AFP)
Damaged headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City on February 15, 2024, amid ongoing Israel-Hamas war. (AFP)

The White House says it will “have to see real progress” before restoring its funding to the United Nations agency for Palestinians, the main aid agency operating in war-torn Gaza.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s comments Tuesday came as a number of countries that froze aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) following accusations by Israel have reinstated funding after a probe found that other claims had not been backed up by evidence.

“In terms of our funding of UNRWA, that is still suspended. We’re gonna have to see real progress here before that gets changed,” Kirby said.

Israel charged earlier this year that at least 12 UNRWA staff had participated in the October 7 massacre. It also alleged that thousands more of the agency’s employees had ties to terror groups or were members themselves.

An independent review into UNRWA found some “neutrality-related issues” in a much-anticipated report released Monday, such as agency staff sharing biased posts on social media and tensions between politicized staff unions and the agency’s upper management.

However, the report found Israel had yet to provide evidence for incendiary allegations that staff were members of terrorist organizations.

Many donor countries have resumed funding since Israel’s accusations, including Sweden, Canada, Japan, the European Union and France — while others, particularly the United States and Britain — have continued to hold out.

“We welcome the results of this report and strongly support the recommendations in the report,” Kirby said, noting that the US also faced legal constraints in restarting its funding.

Congress passed a bill signed into law by US President Joe Biden last month that blocks US funding until March 2025.

In a separate investigation, a UN oversight body is looking into the Israeli allegations against the 12 UNRWA staff.

After the Monday report was released, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said Tuesday that the claims against the agency were “primarily motivated by the objective to strip the Palestinians from the refugee status — and this is a reason why there are pushes today for UNRWA not to be present” in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel has long complained about the agency, founded in 1949 to care for Palestinian refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for UNRWA to be shut down, saying it is infested by terror elements and unjustly seeks to perpetuate a Palestinian refugee crisis.

Lazzarini called for a Security Council investigation into the “blatant disregard” for UN operations in Gaza, adding that 180 of the agency’s staff have been killed since the war began.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting on UNRWA at UN headquarters in New York on April 17, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

He said that the Israeli army has arrested, even tortured UNRWA staffers, echoing assertions published in the UNRWA’s own report from February, which claimed that detained staffers made false confessions about their ties to Hamas under coercion from Israeli soldiers.

Lazzarini, who had warned the agency would be insolvent within weeks after funding was pulled months ago, also revealed that the organization had been able to partly offset the shortfall by raising $100 million from online donations.

Israel rejected the conclusions of the report released Monday, saying it was sidestepping the issue.

“This is not what a true and comprehensive investigation looks like,” said the Israeli statement. “This is what a desire to avoid the problem and not call it by its name looks like.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry charged that Hamas’s penetration of UNRWA is so deep that “it is impossible to say where UNRWA ends and Hamas begins,” as a review of the organization’s links to terror was released.

Numerous past reports have found that UNRWA schools and teachers continue to teach hatred of Jews and glorify terrorism, including a 2022 report by the IMPACT-SE organization that UNRWA textbooks continue to contain incitement. A 2023 report by the same organization along with the UN Watch group cited dozens of examples of social media posts by UNRWA employees that “glorify terrorism, encourage martyrdom, demonize Israelis and incite antisemitism.”

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