Biden’s Defunding of UNRWA Sets a New Benchmark for Cruelty

For Joe Biden, arming the massacre in Gaza apparently wasn’t enough. The US has now defunded UNRWA, the UN agency that provides essential humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees in Gaza and beyond.

Palestinians walk past a fire-damaged UNRWA building in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 2, 2024. (Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

As Palestinian civilian deaths climb at a rate unprecedented in modern warfare, the Biden administration has continued to unconditionally support an Israeli government that appears increasingly barbaric and unhinged. The sole bright spot in the United States’ otherwise disastrous handling of the war has been its continued commitment to funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, a UN agency founded in the aftermath of the 1948 displacement of Palestinians from Israel. Aside from a withdrawal under the Trump administration, the United States has consistently been one of UNRWA’s largest donors.

Last Friday, the United States announced that it would suspend all funding to UNRWA following the release of an Israeli intelligence report that alleged thirteen UNRWA employees were participants in the October 7 Hamas attack. Several other countries followed the United States’ lead, including the UK and Germany.

Like any intergovernmental organization, UNRWA is a flawed vehicle for humanitarian relief. It is also essential. Over the nearly two decades of Israeli blockade, UNRWA has grown into something approaching a state for Gazans, providing schooling, infrastructure, health care, and various social services for the two million people in the strip. This role has grown more pivotal during the war. The Biden administration has consistently cited UNRWA as a key stakeholder in the coordination of aid disbursement. A sizable portion of the $100 million in additional US aid toward Palestinian relief was to flow through UNRWA, on top of the over $200 million sent over the course of 2023. The majority of aid trucks currently entering Gaza are coordinated by the agency.

“There must be complete accountability for anyone who participated in the heinous attacks of October 7,” the State Department said in a statement announcing the pause, which it described as “temporary.” The decision was celebrated by Republicans and some Democrats as an overdue step toward fundamental reform of UNRWA. It is a victory for Israel hawks after decades of efforts. “Let us hope their announcement to freeze funds for UNRWA will mean our taxes no longer pay for teaching Palestinians how to commit massacres of Jews,” tweeted Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, one of the leading voices against UNRWA.

In reality, the decision is a new low for US diplomacy, representing both a fundamental misunderstanding of how aid organizations operate and a new push for the collective punishment of Palestinians. “Let’s be clear,” said Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi, “the nations that cut off funding to UNRWA today are complicit in genocide. Not only that, they want that genocide to happen faster.” The blood continues to pool at the United States’ feet; this decision threatens to unleash a flood.

What UNRWA Is and What It Is Not

UNRWA was founded in 1948 as a temporary means of aiding Palestine refugees. As Western diplomats showed little interest in solving the ongoing crisis of Zionist colonialism, the organization’s aims have grown. Today UNRWA operates a sprawling web of schools, health clinics, and refugee camps across the Middle East region and — pivotally — within Gaza. The continued support of UNRWA is the sole achievement of Western diplomacy in Palestine. While cease-fire negotiations have faltered, UNRWA has at least continued to provide citizens of Gaza with a minimal level of support. Notably, UNRWA is staffed primarily by Palestinians; the agency is the largest nongovernment employer in Gaza. The wide scope of services provided by UNRWA have allowed Western relief to contribute to enduring social services in Gaza without directly funding Hamas, the militant group that has controlled the strip since 2007. However, this relationship has not come without criticism from hard-line supporters of Israel both inside and outside government.

Israel has consistently criticized UNRWA for allowing Hamas militants to use its medical facilities and for its separate status from other UN refugee programs. Yet a 2018 independent appraisal of the agency found that it possessed “a unique and comprehensive understanding of the context in which it is operating,” a “competent, resilient and resolute” organization in spite of a complex mission and precarious funding. It is worthwhile, then, to evaluate its critics’ claims.

The obliquely funded conservative NGO UN Watch published a report in 2023 claiming to find “evidence of UNRWA’s gross and systematic violations of neutrality and other UN rules in their hiring of teachers and in their use of curricula inside UNRWA schools that constitute incitement to hatred, antisemitism and terrorism.” This report, along with decades of similar claims by UN Watch, has given ammunition to critics around the world. Upon the outbreak of the conflict last fall, its work was cited by numerous Republican politicians to condemn the Biden administration for supporting the agency. Trump’s decision to divest from UNRWA in 2018 was based on similar talking points.

UN Watch’s report relies on the social media posts of several UNRWA employees throughout the organization’s broad operating zone, along with examples of material taught at several UNRWA-run schools. These examples range from legitimately troubling occurrences — a post from a Syrian employee sharing memes praising Hitler — to teaching materials disseminating undeniable facts, such as a ninth-grade social studies booklet identifying that the establishment of the Jewish homeland led to the “expulsion of the Palestinian people.” However, these examples do not represent institutional bias at the organization, and UN Watch has consistently failed to find examples of extremism at UNRWA that rise above isolated incidents.

This appears to be intentional. By conflating major and minor transgressions and relying on scattered examples rather than concrete patterns, the UN Watch report recommends an impossibly high standard: it demands that funding to UNRWA be halted until it is “in full compliance with its neutrality obligation,” presumably a process that would include monitoring the social media accounts of its thirty thousand employees.

Cynical Intelligence

The decision to pause funding to UNRWA came following the release of a Israeli report tying several UNRWA employees to the October 7 Hamas attack. The details of the claims were initially unclear; a report in the New York Times earlier this week provided the first specific allegations. Ten employees were identified as members of Hamas; one was identified as a member of Islamic Jihad. Six of these employees were allegedly inside Israel during the attack. Another received a text message requesting ammunition stored in his home. One is alleged to have been an active participant in a kidnapping. Two employees facing allegations are no longer alive; the details of their deaths unclear. The UN says that it fired several employees after it was briefed on the report. It also pledged to undertake an internal investigation into the claims.

By all currently available accounts, the intelligence report did not find any direct connection between UNRWA leadership and Hamas military activity. The Israeli report, which relies on sophisticated surveillance technology and possibly interrogation, only identifies twelve UNRWA employees out of the twelve thousand working in the Gaza strip. Israel has consistently peddled falsehoods during the conflict, and the same intelligence forces promoting the report failed to protect the Israeli public in the lead-up to the Hamas attack.

In the United States, Republicans have claimed vindication and pledged to fight any move to resume funds. The results will be devastating: thousands of Palestinians will lose their primary source of aid.

As the Gaza Strip’s governing body, Hamas will inherently have some interaction with individuals and organizations in the territory. This is just as true for UNRWA as it is for the state of Israel, which has often strategically supported the group. Support for Hamas among the Gaza population has risen and ebbed since its election, but it’s inconceivable that one of the largest employers in Gaza would have no workers in its ranks sympathetic to Hamas.

The allegations in the Israeli report, even if they are accurate, do not justify the collective punishment of millions of Palestinians. “The overwhelming majority of these employees are local staff,” said Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s foreign affairs minister, in an interview urging nations to resume funding. “To try and be absolutely certain that you have zero risk is very difficult.”

Arguments about international liberalism and political realism only cloud the reality of the situation: from Afghan warlords to South American military coups, the United States has a long history of supporting foreign policy that is profoundly out of step with its stated human rights beliefs. The alleged actions of a few do not justify the punishment of millions.

Growing Death as Timelines Stretch

What happens now is unclear. Even the most steadfast supporters of Israel cannot deny the severity of the situation in Gaza: nearly thirty thousand Palestinians dead; the majority of the population displaced from their homes; dwindling food, water, and medical supplies threatening those who survive the daily Israeli air strikes. Israel’s insistence on inspecting aid flowing into Gaza has created bottlenecks at designated entry points. A fracture between the UN and Western governments will only tighten the flow of supplies.

While the next round of US funding to UNRWA is not due until June, many of the countries that followed America’s lead were due to disperse funds sooner. The agency claims that barring a change in policy, their efforts could collapse as soon as the end of February.

In addition to forcing a cease-fire, the United States and its partner countries need to resume aid as soon as possible. The US statement announcing the pause indicates that it will only consider resuming funding following the UN inquiry. Israeli officials have praised the decision and called for a complete overhaul of the agency.

Time may be running out for the most concrete vehicle for Palestine humanitarian relief. A New York Times report over the weekend pointed out that part of the funding shortfall comes from UNRWA having to empty its reserves to cover the Trump decision to pull all aid. It doesn’t take a political savant to look at current polling and imagine a scenario where the pause in funding is continued indefinitely under a second Trump administration, with Biden bleeding critical support over his very backing of Israel’s war on Gaza.

Israel’s attack on UNRWA is an extension of its war on any future for Gaza and its people. As long as Palestinians remain refugees in their own homeland, their material conditions determined by a hostile Israeli state, its services will be essential to support life.