© UNRWA/Ashraf Amra Displaced Palestinians collect food at a distribution point near a school-turned-shelter in Gaza.

Suspending Funding to UNRWA Will Only Make Things Worse

The accusations that 12 UNRWA staff members participated in the October 7 terrorist attacks are serious and credible. The New York Times obtained a dossier containing evidence purported by the government of Israel to show that several UNRWA staff were directly involved in the October 7 attacks. The alleged conduct is grotesque.

The dossier said that Israeli intelligence officers had established the movements of six of the men inside Israel on Oct. 7 based on their phones; others had been monitored while making phone calls inside Gaza during which, the Israelis say, they discussed their involvement in the Hamas attack.

Three others got text messages ordering them to report to muster points on Oct. 7, and one was told to bring rocket-propelled grenades stored at his home, according to the dossier…

The most detailed accusations in the dossier concerned a school counselor from Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, who is accused of working with his son to abduct a woman from Israel.

A social worker from Nuseirat, in central Gaza, is accused of helping to bring the body of a dead Israeli soldier to Gaza, as well as distributing ammunition and coordinating vehicles on the day of the attack.

These accusations were credible enough that the United Nations immediately fired nine of the 12 employees. (Two of the employees were confirmed dead. The status of one is unknown.) Later in the day, on Friday, the United States said it was pausing funding for UNRWA. By Sunday, several other countries joined the United States in suspending funding for UNRWA.

Before the current war, UNRWA was one of the largest employers in Gaza. 13,000 Gazans worked for UNRWA, including school teachers, sanitation workers, health workers, and many, many other types of staff required to sustain such a massive humanitarian operation. That 12 out of 13,000 UNRWA workers are accused of participating in the terrorist attack against Israel is very serious and rightly damages the reputation of UNRWA as a humanitarian entity. But suspending aid to this entire organization over the actions of a tiny fraction of its employees is likely to do much more harm than good.

UNRWA is one of the only lifelines remaining in Gaza. 3,000 of its pre-war staff of 13,000 are still reporting to work amidst constant bombardment and mass displacement. To the extent that Israel is permitting limited aid into Gaza, it is largely through UNRWA that this aid is being distributed. 19 international NGOs working in Gaza issued a issued a joint statement urging the restoration of funding, saying “the work of UNRWA cannot be replaced by other agencies.”

UNRWA says the suspension of funding from its major donors will have a swift and deleterious impact on 2 million Gazans—577,000 of whom are already in the process of starving to death. The decision to suspend aid to UNRWA over the criminal actions of 12 employees will no doubt accelerate this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

Morally, suspending aid to UNRWA is a form of collective punishment. The entire population of Gaza may have their most important lifeline severed because of the criminal actions of a tiny number of UNRWA staff. Practically, this decision directly undermines the Biden administration’s oft-stated priority of improving improving humanitarian conditions inside Gaza, even as Israel continues with the war.

“There will be no partners for peace if they’re consumed by humanitarian catastrophe and alienated by any perceived indifference to their plight,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Israel on November 3, urging the Israel government to improve humanitarian access in Gaza. He was correct then and Blinken’s logic remains strong today. The deeper the humanitarian catastrophe, the more difficult it will be to achieve a sustainable post-war order in Gaza.

But now, the United States and other donors are suspending funding to the single most important humanitarian actor inside Gaza. This decision has predictable consequences: an already desperate humanitarian crisis will descend deeper into calamity and any sort of political resolution will be even more elusive than it seems today.