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The U.S. is barring funding to UNRWA, the only international organization aiding Gaza


The Biden administration has tried to reassure Palestinians that it won't let UNRWA run out of money. UNRWA is the U.N. agency that provides for them. But Washington did pause funding for UNRWA, and as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some lawmakers want to keep it that way.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. covers about a third of UNRWA's budget, so when Israel alleged that 12 UNRWA staffers took part in the Hamas attack on October 7, the agency quickly alerted the U.S. and took action. William Deere is the director of UNRWA's office in Washington.

WILLIAM DEERE: These employees betrayed both the U.N. and, we feel, their own people. And that is why the commissioner general immediately terminated them. To be clear, two of them are dead, but the other 10 were instantly terminated.

KELEMEN: Still, the Biden administration decided to pause funding, and other big donors did the same. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, says she understands that UNRWA is the only international organization with the capacity to help deliver food, flour and fuel to Palestinians in Gaza, but she says donors want to see a full investigation of the Israeli allegations.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We're going to wait to see what the assessments show, and then we'll make a decision on how to move forward, but let me be clear - we will find a way to ensure that we continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.

KELEMEN: Biden administration officials say there is over a billion dollars for the Palestinians in a supplemental bill working its way through Congress, but the current version would bar any funding to UNRWA. And William Deere says there's other language in there that worries him.

DEERE: It is four pages of certifications and requirements and inspector general involvement before any U.S. funds can go to Gaza.

KELEMEN: Deere, who has worked at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, says it will take time for the Biden administration to figure out ways to get aid to Gaza in a way that satisfies Congress. For now, UNRWA says it could run out of money by the end of March. Critics on Capitol Hill say they will work to make sure the U.S. never funds the U.N. agency again. Republican Chris Smith is leading the charge in the House.

CHRIS SMITH: This has to be the pivot point - what has happened with UNRWA. And the international community, including the Biden administration - if he gets another term or whoever follows - has to say enough is enough.

KELEMEN: Israel's defense minister says UNRWA has lost its legitimacy, and he wants aid to be delivered through other organizations. But UNRWA is not easily replaced. It has 13,000 employees in Gaza alone, running schools and hospitals. And Deere points out that it also aids Palestinians in the West Bank and elsewhere in the region.

DEERE: If this goes away in the West Bank, Syria, Jordan - I don't see how regional security is enhanced. And again, in Gaza specifically, we are the backbone of the U.N. response.

KELEMEN: And he says Israel knows who works for the U.N. in Gaza. UNRWA gives Israel a list of all of its employees.

DEERE: Where was Israel helping us out all these years? What were they doing with the list all these years that we have never heard from them until two weeks ago? And you're asking an underfunded U.N. agency to do better than the world's most sophisticated intelligence service.

KELEMEN: Israel's defense minister now says that more than 30 UNRWA staffers took part in the October 7 attack, not the 12 that the Israelis initially named. And he says 12% of UNRWA staff have ties to Palestinian militant groups. UNRWA says Israel has not provided it with evidence on that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.