unrwa's undoing

Across a broad spectrum, lawmakers open to replacing UNRWA

Some Democrats, however, argued that humanitarian funding for Gaza needs to be continued through UNRWA or some other mechanism in the near term, before a full-scale overhaul

Rafah Police

Armed men sit atop a U.N. aid truck outside a U.N. logistics facility in the Gaza Strip

A broad spectrum of lawmakers indicated at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday that they’re open to pursuing plans to dissolve and replace the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the wake of revelations that the organization’s employees were involved in the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel, likely foreshadowing further efforts in the House to wind down the scandal-plagued U.N. agency.

But some Democrats argued that humanitarian funding for Gaza needs to be continued through UNRWA or some other mechanism in the near term, before a full-scale overhaul. The comments could preview expanded pressure that the Biden administration might face to move quickly to reinstate aid to the troubled U.N. agency.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), the ranking member of the Oversight & Accountability subcommittee, which co-hosted the hearing, said he has “real concerns” about UNRWA, acknowledging that there is a “need for substantial reform, or to find a follow-on successor organization to fulfill the functions” that UNRWA performs. 

But Crow insisted that the U.S. must find a channel to swiftly resume the flow of humanitarian goods to Gaza — whether through UNRWA itself or an alternative organization. He also said that the actions of the dozen UNRWA employees implicated in the Oct. 7 attack shouldn’t reflect on the entire organization.

“I have very real concerns about the security impact and the moral implications if we do not find quickly a way to resume some funding and allow that aid to move forward expeditiously,” Crow said. “The horrifying and inexcusable actions of roughly a dozen people should not speak for the over 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza alone.”

A Wall Street Journal report published Monday cited Israeli intelligence suggesting that 10% of UNRWA employees in Gaza were members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Crow further noted that even a brief pause in aid to UNRWA could severely strain its ability to provide services.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA), who is the ranking member of the Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee, which co-organized the hearing, said that the scandal is “deeply disturbing and it only underscores the clear need for reform.”

But she likewise emphasized that those directly implicated in the Oct. 7 attack comprise a small fraction of UNRWA’s workforce, even as she acknowledged the “entrenched and long standing flaws of the organization’s functioning and its mandate.”

Several Democrats, and their chosen witness — Mara Rudman, a University of Virginia professor and former national security official — argued that the UNRWA cannot be easily or quickly replaced or phased out, given that other agencies lack the personnel, logistics and resources on the ground in Gaza to step into UNRWA’s shoes immediately. They also said that attempting to replace UNRWA on short notice could ultimately replicate its staffing issues inside the new organization.

“The cost to the United States, the cost to Israel, the cost to regional stability, of not feeding people, not getting water in, is far, far higher than a clearly inadequate agency — but the agency that has the infrastructure of doing it until and unless we have an alternative,” Rudman said. 

She pushed for an independent audit of UNRWA to determine if it can be reformed or must be replaced, but said aid must be restarted in the meantime, while that investigation happens.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday that the administration does not believe there is any other humanitarian organization in Gaza to which it can provide aid in the short term to fill UNRWA’s role. Miller also said that only around $300,000 in outstanding funds designated for UNRWA will be impacted by the funding freeze, until Congress passes another funding bill.

Republicans and other witnesses largely favored a more aggressive approach to the U.N. agency, pushing legislation to cut off UNRWA permanently, and highlighting widespread, long-standing issues inside the agency, which they argued shows that the rot inside UNRWA goes far deeper than the dozen employees who directly participated in the Oct. 7 attack.

“Going far beyond the revelations of the last week, there has long been massive and irrefutable evidence of UNRWA’s extensive connivance, complicity, and cooperation in Hamas’ antisemitic genocidal hate campaign,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the chair of the International Organizations subcommittee, argued.

Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) went further, accusing UNRWA of being “directly responsible” for the Oct. 7 attack.

Republican lawmakers raised concerns about reports that the administration had provided a significant allocation of funding to UNRWA leading up to the announcement that it was pausing aid — funding that will remain in UNRWA’s hands despite the subsequent freeze.

“I think that we have a shell game going on from the administration right now, where they’re saying that they’re cutting off the funding, pausing the funding, when in fact they waited until just after they allocated tens of millions of dollars to be released to UNRWA,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), who chairs the Oversight subcommittee, said, vowing to introduce legislation to rescind the funds.

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) indicated that he leans toward the Republicans’ view on cutting off UNRWA, arguing that there are alternatives to the organization, even if replacing it will not be simple.

“We should not be asked to accept that a Hamas-UNRWA link is simply the cost of ensuring that humanitarian relief gets to Palestinians,” Schneider said. “We can’t let obstacles block us from replacing UNRWA.”

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) likewise highlighted the longstanding “fundamental problems” with UNRWA that lawmakers can not “tolerate.” She added that the recent revelations may be just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Witnesses called by Republicans pushed back on assertions that no other agencies are capable of replacing UNRWA in the short term.

Rich Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, testified that UNRWA’s responsibilities can be divided among the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other organizations in the near term, arguing that history shows the U.S. and international agencies are fully capable of bringing together a significant crisis response on short notice.

Many lawmakers seemed amenable to Goldberg’s proposals.

Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, testified that UNRWA’s mission — which differs from the U.N.’s handling of other refugee crises — is fundamentally unproductive.

“The core problem of UNRWA — the very purpose of the agency — is to perpetuate the war of 1948, to send the message to Palestinians that the War of 1948 is not over,” Neuer said. “If the United States and other governments that fund UNRWA truly care about helping Palestinians and Israelis, it’s time to put an end to this perverse logic. We’re asking the Congress to take the lead in dissolving this agency.”

Marcus Sheff, the CEO of IMPACT-se, an education watchdog group that monitors antisemitism in learning materials across the Middle East, testified that UNRWA-funded education likely contributed to the Oct. 7 attack. 

“If we want to prevent the next massacre, if we want to dream of peace, then UNRWA can play no further part in the Palestinian education,” Sheff said. 

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