Why the United States Halted Funding to the UN’s Palestinian Refugee Agency

The secretary-general of the United Nations is pleading with the US and other key governments to resume aid.

Gehad Hamdy/AP

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The United Nations agency that serves Palestinian refugees is in tumult after Israel accused a dozen of its employees of participating in Hamas’ October 7 attack, a stunning claim that has since prompted eight of the agency’s biggest donor countries to halt funding.

Those countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Canada; the US has long been the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) biggest donor and annually provides hundreds of millions in humanitarian aid. 

“The abhorrent alleged acts of these staff members must have consequences,” UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said in a statement that urged the governments to resume funding. “But the tens of thousands of men and women who work for UNRWA, many in some of the most dangerous situations for humanitarian workers, should not be penalized. The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

Details of the allegations, which were made by the Israeli military and reportedly involve 12 UNRWA staffers, are not clear. The agency employs about 13,000 people in Gaza and has long managed services ranging from education to health care for Palestinian refugees. In announcing its decision to temporarily pause funding on Friday, the US State Department acknowledged the critical role the UNRWA plays in delivering life-saving assistance to Palestinians. Still, it said that it would suspend funding until the agency finished an investigation into the allegations.

The other countries released similar statements. “We must make sure that not a single euro of Finland’s money goes to Hamas or other terrorists,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday.

The timing of Israel’s accusations comes as the crisis in Gaza, where the death toll has topped 26,000 people, continues unabated. On Sunday, Guterres warned that the decisions to suspend funding by some of its biggest donors could mean that the agency will be unable to work at full capacity as early as February. 

“While I understand their concerns—I was myself horrified by these accusations—I strongly appeal to the governments that have suspended their contributions to, at least, guarantee the continuity of UNRWA’s operations,” Guterres said.

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