'Flat-out lies': US senator slams allegations against UNRWA

'Flat-out lies': US senator slams allegations against UNRWA
US Senator Chris Van Hollen called Israel's claims that the UNRWA collaborated with Hamas 'flat-out lies' - and accused Israel of trying to destroy the agency.
3 min read
18 March, 2024
Senator Chris Van Hollen said Netanyahu has been scheming to destroy UNRWA since 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

US Senator Chris Van Hollen has slammed allegations made by Israel against the UN's Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) over the past few months, calling them "flat-out lies".

“There’s no doubt that the claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu and others are making, that somehow UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat-out lies,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in an interview with CBS News on Sunday.

Van Hollen accused Netanyahu of fabricating claims in order to eliminate the agency, which provides essential services to nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees around the Middle East. "Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA since at least 2017. That’s been his goal," Van Hollen stated.

On January 26, the Israeli army accused 12 UNRWA staff of participating in the Hamas' October 7 attack on Israel, which killed nearly 1,200 Israelis and led to the capture of 240 hostages.

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The timing of the accusations coincided with a verdict by the International Court of Justice that found a "real and imminent threat" of genocide carried out by the Israeli army in Gaza. Israel's indiscriminate military campaign against the territory has killed over 30,000 people and destroyed entire towns and residential areas.

In previous years, UNRWA had faced multiple Israeli or US-led smear campaigns to delegitimise its work in Gaza, although the agency abides by strict vetting procedures to comply with anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism requirements set by its donors.

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In the wake of Israel's accusations, UNRWA immediately terminated some staff's contracts and opened an investigation, but over a dozen countries (including the United States) halted funding to the agency, which employs 12,000 people in Gaza alone.

 UNRWA effectively lost around $440 million of its annual funding, around one-third of which stems from Washington (valued at $344 million).

The defunding was widely condemned by UN officials and human rights organizations around the world as a form of collective punishment.

"We should investigate [these claims], we should hold all those people accountable," Van Hollen continued. "But … let’s not hold 2 million innocent Palestinian civilians who are dying of starvation (...) accountable for the bad acts of 14 people," he added, echoing concerns that Israel was weaponizing the claims to shut down one of Gaza's last remaining lifelines.

The Israeli army repeatedly failed to provide sufficient evidence to back its claims. Inconsistencies also appeared early on in Israel's narrative, with documents shared with Sky News by Israel naming 6 rather than 12 staff as allegedly involved in the attacks. 

Several donor countries who initially suspended their assistance to UNRWA, like Australia and Canada resumed funding to the agency earlier this month.

However, a great deal of harm has been done.

Over the past months, UNRWA's lack of funds has prompted concerns within Gaza over its ability to manage the humanitarian crisis and sustain its other operations across the Middle East. 

Amid the chaos, UNRWA chief Phillipe Lazzarini has been scrambling to fill the current gap in funding for the agency, with some Arab state donors outlining plans to step up to fill the gap.