Israeli officials have long complained that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers aid programs for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, was closely aligned with Hamas. But the accusations that aid workers were members of the organization — whose fighters killed 1,200 people and took more than 250 captive in the raid into Israel — threatened the existence of the primary conduit for aid to millions of people in Gaza whose lives have been upended after nearly four months of war.
Israeli officials didn’t provide UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini with any pieces of paper for him to take away, but the evidence they presented was convincing enough that it persuaded Lazzarini to fire nine of the alleged participants, some of whom worked as teachers in schools run by the aid agency, according to people familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and sensitive diplomatic negotiations. Some of the 12 alleged Hamas members and conspirators were later said to have been killed.
The United States has not independently verified Israel’s claims, which are based on intercepted communications, phone location data, interrogations of Hamas fighters and documents that the Israeli military has recovered in Gaza, officials said. The Washington Post reviewed a document containing the names, U.N. positions and alleged Hamas roles of the 12 individuals, which were shared with the United States and other governments, but has been unable to corroborate the information.
The evidence Israel has privately presented persuaded the United States and eight other country donors to pause funding for UNRWA, a decision that other aid groups have warned imperils the safety and welfare of Gaza civilians who depend on U.N. relief and assistance. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Israeli information “highly credible.”
Whether the funding spigot will be turned back on now depends on the United Nations conducting a credible investigation, according to officials in the United States, UNRWA’s single biggest funder.
After his meeting with Israeli officials, Lazzarini flew to Washington and met with members of the Biden administration. He told them what the Israelis had said and explained the actions he had taken in response to what he would later publicly call “shocking allegations.”
By Wednesday, both the White House and the State Department had been briefed by UNRWA on the Israeli claims. The next day, the administration received from the Israeli government a dossier containing several pages of accusations, including that Hamas has long used the aid agency to “advance terrorist attacks” and that a “mutual dependence” had formed between the two organizations. The Post obtained a copy of the document.
In a matter of hours, officials at the National Security Council and the State Department decided to halt funding to UNRWA, said a senior U.S. official familiar with the matter.
But officials in Washington and Jerusalem acknowledge that there is no practical alternative to UNRWA in providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, a job that Israeli officials do not want but would have to assume or risk violating international law, which requires an occupying power to ensure that a captive population has access to basic services.
Following a closed-door U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday morning, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that “there has to be accountability for anyone who participated in this attack on October 7.” She said that the United States has “reached out to the government of Israel to seek more information about these allegations.”
“They are taking it very seriously,” she said of the U.N. agency.
At the same time, she said, “we shouldn’t let that cloud the great work that UNRWA does,” calling it “the only organization on the ground that has the capacity to continue to provide that assistance. And their personnel have done extraordinary work — they’ve literally saved thousands of lives, and it’s unfortunate that this information has raised some doubts about UNRWA.”
The Biden administration continues to view UNRWA as an essential provider of humanitarian relief to Gaza, as well as to Palestinians in the West Bank and refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. Its mandate, established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1949, also includes operating schools and medical clinics — virtually all of which have been closed and turned into shelters that now house more than 1 million people in Gaza who are almost totally dependent on UNWRA for the necessities of life.
But the seriousness of the Israeli allegations forced the Biden administration to take action, said U.S. officials.
Pro-Israel conservatives in Washington have for years taken issue with U.N. criticism of Israeli human rights violations in the Palestinian territories, accusing the international body and its agencies — especially UNRWA — of being antisemitic.
“With all due respect to the president, this was a long-overdue response,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said Tuesday during his opening remarks to a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing titled “UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures.”
“There has long been massive and irrefutable evidence of UNRWA’s extensive complicity and cooperation in Hamas’s antisemitic genocidal hate campaign,” said Smith, who attributed the administration’s decision to halt funding to Israel’s findings, as well as “public pressure.”
By stopping support, at least for the moment, Washington aims to compel the agency to carry out a thorough investigation, said a senior U.S. official, or risk permanently losing funding from Western governments whose donations are critical to its survival.
“We really want their work to continue, but we can only continue to fund it if the world sees that UNRWA conducted a credible investigation,” said the senior official. “This provides all the more incentive for [U.N. leadership] to carry this out quickly and, if there are any other steps that they need to take, that they take those steps as well.”
In the short term, Israeli officials probably view the allegations as a useful way to blacken the eye of an institution they have long distrusted, but they may also use the incident to mount a more aggressive long-term campaign against UNRWA, seeking to replace it with an alternative organization, the senior U.S. official said.
The Biden administration has been at pains to emphasize that there is currently no alternative for the vital work the agency provides.
UNRWA “continues to play an absolutely indispensable role in trying to make sure that men, women and children who so desperately need assistance in Gaza actually get it, and no one else can play the role that UNRWA has been playing, certainly not in the near term,” Blinken said Monday.
The same day, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby sought to temper some of the criticisms leveled at the organization, noting that the allegations pertain to just a small fraction of the more than 13,000 people it employs in Gaza.
“Let’s not impugn the good work of a whole agency because of the potential bad action here of a small number,” Kirby told reporters at the White House.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres detailed an array of steps the organization is taking.
“The Secretary General is personally horrified by the accusations against employees of UNRWA, but his message to donors, especially those who have suspended their contributions, is to at least guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations, as we have tens of thousands of dedicated staff working throughout the region,” said Stéphane Dujarric.
“The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met. At this point, the outlook for UNRWA and the millions of people it serves, not only in Gaza but also in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, is very bleak,” he said.
The United Nations intends to carry out two investigations related to UNRWA, said Dujarric. One, by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, will hold to account any employee involved in acts of terror, “including through criminal prosecution,” Dujarric said.
A second investigation, initiated by Lazzarini on Jan. 17 but not yet set up, will look broadly at what the U.N. agency does, Dujarric said. He added that the agency’s chief opened the inquiry “because it’s an open secret that there’s a lot of support from UNRWA, but there is some criticism, as well,” an indication that U.N. officials understood that the agency was taking political fire amid the war.
The United States typically provides $300 million to $400 million per year to UNRWA, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Tuesday. Since Oct. 1, the United States has provided about $121 million.
The suspension of funding announced last week applies to an additional $300,000 the United States planned to provide. Miller said the United States would probably provide many more millions of dollars to UNRWA in the current fiscal year absent the funding pause, but he said he could not provide a precise figure until lawmakers conclude negotiations on the budget.
Asked when the Biden administration would make a decision on whether to resume aid or continue the suspension, Thomas-Greenfield, the U.N. ambassador, noted that donor nations were meeting Tuesday afternoon with Guterres “to discuss with him the path moving forward. But we want to ensure that humanitarian assistance continues to flow to the Palestinian people.”
“We need to look at the organization, how it operates in Gaza, how they manage their staff, and to ensure that people who commit criminal acts, such as these 12 individuals, are held accountable immediately so that UNRWA can continue the essential work that it is doing,” Thomas-Greenfield said.