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US cut UNRWA funds but Blinken says Gaza claims not verified

Blinken admits UNRWA allegations yet to be 'born out' as backlash over Gaza aid cut rises
4 min read
31 January, 2024
The US decision to suspend funding to UNRWA has come under scathing criticism by aid organisations, who note that the ICJ ordered an increase of aid into Gaza.
Anthony Blinken's comments come following the start of an independent investigation by UNRWA into the allegations [MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty]

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has admitted that Israeli allegations against UNRWA staff have yet to be "born out", despite the US suspending funding for the agency over the claims.

During a press conference in Washington DC, Blinken said that the US wanted to make sure that an investigation by the UN agency tasked with aiding Palestinian refugees in the Middle East into its staff members was thorough and done with clear accountability.

He said he hoped that measures would be in place at UNRWA "so that this doesn't happen again, assuming the allegations are fully born out".

"We haven't had the ability to investigate them [the allegations] ourselves but they are highly, highly credible" he added, without substantiating how.

Israel alleges that 12 UNRWA staff were involved in Hamas' 7 October attack on Israel that killed 1,140 people and saw about 240 people taken hostage. Several countries have paused their funding to the UN agency as a result.

Blinken further admitted that UNRWA was playing an important role in the distribution of aid to Gaza's population, which has suffered a brutal military assault by Israel and is on the brink of famine.

"No one else can play the role that UNRWA's been playing, certainly not in the near term. No one has the reach, the capacity, the structure, to do what UNRWA's been doing and from our perspective its important - more than important, imperative - that that role continues," he said.

Blinken's comments come following criticism by UN officials and aid organisations over a decision by the US and other states to halt funding to UNRWA.

US Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield echoed Blinken's comments, saying "UNRWA has provided essential humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people and UNRWA is the only organisation on the ground that has the capacity to continue to provide that assistance".

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"We shouldn't let this information [allegations], these facts undermine the efforts that UNRWA is making to provide lifesaving assistance," she added.

The funding suspension has also prompted initiatives from members of US Congress, with some looking to redirect funding to other agencies, and other imploring the US to resume the funding.

This includes a group of Jewish House Democrats discussing alternative ways of providing aid to Gaza in discussion with the Israeli military, according to Axios.

The group of eight to ten representatives met with Colonel Elad Goren who told the representatives that funding could be redirected to UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and other aid agencies.

However, the meeting also saw Goren dispute warnings that Gaza was on the brink of famine, making reference to the existence of open air markets, and said Israel was willing to send further aid.

Another group in congress is pressing for the funding to UNRWA to be resumed. This includes Senator Bernie Sanders, who said "we cannot allow millions to suffer because of the actions of 12 people. The US and other countries must restore funding to starve off this humanitarian catastrophe."

Representative Rashida Tlaib reportedly said the decision showed the Biden administration cared little about Palestinian lives, while Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez implored the administration to reverse the decision.

The comments from Blinken and congressional debates around the US decision to suspend UNRWA funding comes as aid organisations heavily criticise the move.

A letter penned by 20 aid organisations including the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children and Oxfam said that they were outraged by the decision, noting it comes following an International Court of Justice order to increase aid to the enclave.

"We are shocked by the reckless decision to cut a lifeline for an entire population by some of the very countries that had called for aid in Gaza to be stepped up and for humanitarians to be protected while doing their job."

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Thanassis Cambanis, Director of Century International, told The New Arab that he thought the US decision was unlikely to be reversed, and that it reinforced Israel's war aims.

"The accusations against UNRWA play into a fertile ground, unfortunately, of people who want to undermine some of the last functioning institutions that serve Palestinians, and which give some remaining political legitimacy to their refugee claims and their aspiration to nationhood."

He added that the existence of UNRWA was essential to the survival of Palestinians in Gaza and for a post-conflict settlement, and that it was likely US partners would have to cover the shortfall.

A joint statement from the UN's inter-agency standing committee implored UN member states to reconsider the suspension of funding for UNRWA, noting the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services has been activated to participate in an investigation over the allegations.

"Withdrawing funds from UNRWA is perilous and would result in the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, with far-reaching humanitarian and human rights consequences in the occupied Palestinian territory and across the region.

"The world cannot abandon the people of Gaza," it added.

Since 7 October, 26,900 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, with a further 65,949 wounded, according to Gaza's health authorities.