Tuesday, May 28, 2024

U.S. Doubles Down on UNRWA Defunding Despite Allegations


The House of Representatives voted on Friday to defund the United Nations agency that aids Palestinians through next year — even as 1.1 million people in Gaza face threats of famine in coming months — on the basis of flimsy allegations by Israel against a tiny minority of the agency’s staff that have yet to be proven.

The vote came as part of a $1.2 trillion spending package to avert a partial government shutdown. In addition to stripping funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, through March 2025, the bill includes the $3.8 billion the U.S. sends to Israel every year.

The bill also contains a long-standing provision that would limit aid to the Palestinian Authority, which governs the occupied West Bank, if “the Palestinians initiate an International Criminal Court (ICC) judicially authorized investigation, or actively supports such an investigation, that subjects Israeli nationals to an investigation for alleged crimes against Palestinians.”

The Senate is debating the bill ahead of a Friday midnight deadline, and President Joe Biden has said he will sign it when it comes to his desk.

The U.S. first suspended aid to UNRWA in late January when the Israeli government leveled allegations that 12 of the agency’s 30,000 employees — or 0.04 percent — were involved in Hamas’s attacks on October 7 (Israel later accused two additional employees of involvement, bringing the total number to 14).

In response, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, immediately terminated the accused staff members and launched an investigation. The U.S. decision to cut aid to the 74-year-old aid agency, which was founded amid the creation of Israel and the ensuing Nakba — the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from their homes — prompted much of the West to follow suit, including other top donors such as Germany, the European Union, and Sweden.

While several of those donors have recently announced their intention to resume funding, the U.S. government, which has historically been a top donor to UNRWA, has instead doubled down. The spending bill passed the House with a 286-135 vote. Twenty-three Democrats voted against the bill, with several issuing statements directly linking their “no” votes to the UNRWA provision.

Even in the lead-up to the Friday vote, several members of Congress slammed the idea of continuing to penalize UNRWA.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told The Independent that members of Congress have intelligence assessments that suggest halting funding is “not grounded in solid facts.”

“We should not be restricting, we should be restoring, I’ve been saying that on public record,” Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., added. “The idea that people are literally starving to death and we are contributing to that is a problem.” Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Dick Durbin of Illinois expressed similar concerns.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., put it more harshly earlier this week. “Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this starvation caucus,” Sanders said, “happy to cut funding to UNRWA and make it harder to get aid to Palestinians in the midst of this crisis.”

UNRWA announced Israel’s allegations against its employees on January 26, the same day the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel is plausibly committing genocide. It didn’t take very long for the allegations to start to fall apart.

On January 30, Sky News reported that it had seen Israeli intelligence documents fielding the allegations and that they “make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA.” That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the allegations were “highly, highly credible,” while also admitting the U.S. hadn’t done its own investigation.

On February 3, the Financial Times wrote that Israel’s intelligence assessment “provides no evidence for the claims.” Shortly thereafter, British outlet Channel 4 reported that a confidential Israeli document detailing the allegations “provides no evidence to support its explosive new claim.” Two days later, CBC reported that Canada — another top UNRWA donor — suspended its funding without seeing any evidence to substantiate the allegation against the UNRWA staff members.

Within a few days, Lazzarini admitted that he followed “reverse due process” by firing staff members implicated in the allegations before conducting an investigation.

“Indeed, I have terminated without due process because I felt at the time that not only the reputation but the ability of the entire agency to continue to operate and deliver critical humanitarian assistance was at stake if I did not take such a decision,” he said, explaining that the agency was already subject to “fierce and ugly attacks.”

“My judgment, based on this going public, true or untrue, was I need to take the swiftest and boldest decision to show that as an agency we take this allegation seriously.”

Just last week, the European Union’s top humanitarian aid official said he has still not seen evidence from Israel to back its accusations — nearly two months after they were made.

Even if the allegations were found to be true, many have argued cutting funding to UNRWA is tantamount to collective punishment. “We should investigate it,” Van Hollen said this week. “But for goodness’ sake, let’s not hold 2 million innocent Palestinian civilians who are dying of starvation accountable for the bad acts of 14 people.”

Meanwhile, UNRWA’s internal investigation turned out horrific reports that Israel tortured UNRWA staff in order to force false confessions that they were involved in the October 7 attack and are members of Hamas. Staffers were allegedly beaten, waterboarded, and had their family members threatened by Israeli soldiers. UNRWA also alleged that Israeli soldiers used a nail gun on Palestinians’ knees and sexually abused the prisoners, including through “the insertion of what appears to be an electrified metal stick into prisoners’ rectums.” Israel has denied the allegations.

Over the past couple weeks, many Western states have reinstated their funding to UNRWA, including the European Union, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. The State Department, meanwhile, has continued to find ways to justify its ongoing suspension of funding to the agency.

On March 14, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller was asked about statements by U.N. officials that Israel has still not provided evidence showing that the UNRWA staff were involved with the October 7 attack. Miller responded that the initial U.S. decision to pause funding was prompted not by Israel but by UNRWA.

“We hadn’t heard from the government of Israel about these allegations,” Miller said. “It was about allegations that UNRWA brought to us. And when they brought us these allegations, they told us that they had investigated them and found them to be credible, and that’s why they had taken action to fire the employees in question.”

He concluded: “With respect to the ongoing investigation, we do have faith in their ability to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Yet Miller’s response evades a crucial detail: It was Israel that brought the allegations to UNRWA in the first place. And though UNRWA’s initial statement may have prompted the pause in U.S. funding, the U.S. has not shifted course even after UNRWA’s own chief said he fired the staff without full-on investigation due to external pressure.

The paradox is telling: The U.S. apparently found UNRWA credible based on the agency’s serious response to the allegations against it. Yet UNRWA’s follow-up statements — that the agency was overzealous in its response and that it has reason to believe Israeli soldiers have tortured its staffers — don’t seem to carry the same credibility.

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