We oppose axing UNRWA mid-war, senior Israeli official says amid global funding halt

Official clarifies agency should be out of Gaza after war but argues collapsing it now may lead to humanitarian crisis that would force IDF to halt offensive against Hamas

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

Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA. (Photo by AFP)
Palestinian men and children gather for a demonstration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, calling for continued international support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA. (Photo by AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government does not support the immediate discontinuation of UNRWA, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday as a host of Western countries moved to suspend funding for the UN relief agency for Palestinians amid allegations that roughly a dozen of its employees took part in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught and hundreds more are either operatives or have close ties with members.

“If UNRWA ceases operating on the ground, this could cause a humanitarian catastrophe that would force Israel to halt its fighting against Hamas,” the senior Israeli official said, briefing The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “This would not be in Israel’s interest and it would not be in the interest of Israel’s allies either.”

This is the first time a message defending UNRWA’s continued operation has been voiced by an Israeli official since the UN agency announced Friday that it had terminated the contracts of several employees after receiving evidence from Israel that they participated in the October 7 attacks during which some 1,200 — mostly civilians — were massacred and 253 were taken hostage into Gaza.

UNRWA said it was launching an independent investigation into the matter. But this did not stop the United States — the agency’s leading donor — from announcing that it was suspending all additional funding to the organization pending the investigation. Over a dozen countries around the globe followed suit including Germany, Italy, France, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Canada, leading UNRWA to announce Monday that the organization was at risk of having to cease operations in Gaza by the end of February if funding doesn’t resume.

The senior Israeli official clarified that Jerusalem supports the decision made by countries to suspend their funding and stressed that every UNRWA staffer “involved in terror activity must be held accountable.”

A second Israeli official separately confirmed a Wall Street Journal report revealing that in addition to the 12 UNRWA staffers who allegedly took part in the October 7 terror onslaught, roughly 1,200 employees — 10% of the Gaza staff — are either tied to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to Israeli intelligence.

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)

“Hamas is obviously going to infiltrate an organization operating in an area under its control. It would be surprising if it wasn’t the case,” the second official said.

The first source — the senior Israeli official — argued that the latest allegations lend further credence to Israel’s mistrust of UNRWA after long-held assertions that it “perpetuates the refugee problem,” incites against Israel in its school system and allows its facilities to be used by Hamas for terror activity.

“We believe that in the long-term, UNRWA cannot be part of the solution and cannot be part of the “day after” Hamas,” the senior official added.

“Having said all of that, UNRWA is currently the international organization that plays the most dominant role in the entry and delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and because there currently is no alternative, Israel is not pushing to shut down UNWRA,” the official explained.

Also Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Matt Miller said that roughly $300,000 earmarked for UNRWA has been withheld following the Biden administration’s decision to suspend funding to the agency.

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. (AFP)

Roughly $121 million in US funding was already transferred to UNRWA between October 1 and last Friday’s decision to suspend funding pending the investigation. Typically, the US provides UNRWA with between $300 and $400 million annually, making it the world’s largest donor to the agency.

The next major payment was not slated to be made until the summer but the amount will depend on the funds allocated by Congress in the supplemental funding package and Continuing Resolution, which both have not yet been passed.

Miller said the US will make a decision regarding the frozen $300,000 as well as all future funding to UNRWA based on the findings of the UN’s investigation into the allegations against its staff members.

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, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

Highlighting how serious the allegations were, the State Department spokesman said UNRWA already decided to fire eight of its staffers and suspend an additional two.

Nonetheless, Miller reiterated that the US still supports UNRWA’s “critical” work providing humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

“There is no other humanitarian player in Gaza who can provide food and water and medicine to at the scale that UNRWA does,” he stressed, adding that this is why the US wants the UN to thoroughly and speedily conduct its investigation so that such conduct by agency employees can never happen again and so it can serving Palestinians in Gaza.

The evidence provided by Israel is “highly credible,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday.

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