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UNRWA loses funding after charges that some employees took part in Hamas attack


The U.S. and more than a dozen other donors have now paused funding for the U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, or UNRWA. The U.N. says the agency could run out of money within weeks. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the U.N. has been facing allegations that some of its employees were involved in the October 7 attack on Israel.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. says it's trying to be proactive after Israel handed over a dossier accusing 12 U.N. employees of direct involvement in the Hamas attack that sparked the latest war. Dozens more are alleged to be affiliated with Hamas. Some of these UNRWA employees are accused of moving hostages and weapons, and some were in Israel the day of the attack. All have been either fired, suspended or killed in the conflict. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the Secretary-General was horrified by the accusations.


STEPHANE DUJARRIC: But his message to donors, especially those who have suspended their contribution, is to at least guarantee the continuity of UNRWA's operations, as we have tens of thousands of dedicated staff working throughout the region. The dire needs of the desperate population they serve must be met.

KELEMEN: He says Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will hold a meeting with donors Tuesday afternoon, trying to reassure them that the U.N. will hold to account anyone who took part in the October 7 attack. Former UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says Palestinians in Gaza should not be punished for the actions of a few.

CHRIS GUNNESS: And let's be clear, this is 12 bad apples in a staff of 13,000 people in Gaza. Many of them are actually disgusted that their colleagues did this. They want to get on and have the funds to continue with their life-saving humanitarian work. It's disproportionate, I think, this response by the donors. It's also punitive.

KELEMEN: UNRWA, he says, is running on empty. It needs money to buy food, fuel and supplies for 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, as well as for Palestinians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank. Now that some 17 countries have suspended their payments, UNRWA could run out of funds next month.

GUNNESS: It will punish the women coming in with newborn babies for food and water. It will punish the children with 95% burns, gasping for water or whatever. It'll punish the elderly, the sick, the dying. It's punitive, and it must be reversed immediately. The most desperate people on our planet are being punished.

KELEMEN: The former UNRWA spokesman says the U.S. and other donors need to be clear about what they expect of the U.N. agency to have this aid restored. At the White House, spokesman John Kirby says a lot will depend on the U.N.'s investigation and what specific steps it takes.

JOHN KIRBY: We understand that they are very, very dependent on donor contributions, and the United States has been the leading donor for many, many years. We have suspended our contributions to UNRWA pending the results of this investigation. All the more reason that, as I said, this investigation be credible, transparent and thorough and, frankly, timely.

KELEMEN: Supporters of UNRWA see the agency as a force for stability in the Middle East. But Israel has long accused the U.N. agency of teaching hatred of Israel, and there are many critics of UNRWA in Washington, some of whom will be speaking at a congressional hearing Tuesday afternoon and advocating foreign aid cutoff. But the Biden administration has been pushing hard to get more aid into Gaza. And for that, UNRWA is key. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.