Displaced Palestinians prepare food beside temporary shelters at a camp operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Nov. 19, 2023 Photo by Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The U.S. has temporarily ceased payments to the United Nations agency founded to support Palestinians over allegations made by Israel that 12 of its employees participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini in a statement on Friday confirmed that he had fired “several” staffers while the agency investigates evidence provided by Israel. It was not clear if he had fired all 12 named by Israel.
A State Department statement said that the U.S. is “extremely troubled” over the allegations and welcomes the U.N. investigation. At the same time it said the relief group, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, provides “lifesaving assistance” to Palestinians.
The U.S. is UNRWA’s biggest donor, and gave a third of its budget in 2022 — $344 million of $1.17 billion. The suspension comes as the agency scrambles to assist Gaza Palestinians driven to starvation by the devastation of the Israel-Hamas war.
Israel has long charged that UNRWA — founded in 1949 to assist Palestinians who fled or were expelled from Israel during its war for independence — of corruption and perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian crisis by supporting Palestinians’ “right of return” to Israel. But it has also seen the relief the agency provided as a means of keeping the Gaza Strip, and parts of the West Bank, from exploding into chaos.
Yoav Gallant, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, thanked the U.S. for pausing payments: “these are ‘humanitarian workers’ with blood on their hands,” he tweeted.
Former President Donald Trump stopped U.S. payments to the agency in 2018, and President Joe Biden resumed them soon after he took office. Congressional Republicans have blasted the agency, and plan to hold hearings on whether U.S. dollars intended for Palestinians in need have been diverted to militants, an accusation UNRWA has denied.
Its defenders say that UNRWA — which provides food, shelter and runs schools for Palestinians in Gaza and several countries in the Middle East — does not seek any entanglements with Hamas, which rules Gaza, or the party’s militant wing.
“You can’t hold them accountable for the depredations of Hamas and the way Hamas uses civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, for command-and-control and storage of weapons and holding of hostages,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said earlier this month, according to Haaretz.
Hamas terrorists murdered more than 1,200 people, brutalized thousands more and abducted more than 240 on Oct. 7. Since Israel launched counterstrikes, more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, including thousands of children. Israel says a third of the dead are combatants.
“UNRWA reiterates its condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the abhorrent attacks of 7 October and calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages and their safe return to their families,” UNRWA’s Lazzarini said in his statement.
JTA contributed to this report.