Secretary Blinken Admits That The U.S. Has Been Unable To Investigate The “Evidence” Presented By Israel Claiming 13 Of UNRWA’s 13,000 Gaza Employees Participated In October 7.
Biden took Israel’s word for it anyway.
In the latest demonstration of the boundless cruelty of U.S. President Joe Biden and his despicable administration, they have turned the backbone of what little aid Palestinians in Gaza receive into a political football, to be toyed with and batted around while jeopardizing that support for people who are already near the edge of what any human, however brave, can possibly endure.
It’s the latest in what feels like an eternal cycle of the United States and Israel beating up on the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for political gain. There have been many hearings on Capitol Hill over the years bashing UNRWA and calling for either a complete structural overhaul of the agency or its dismantlement and absorption into the larger United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The root of the attacks, prior to October 7, 2023, has been UNRWA’s unique mission which is to provide humanitarian assistance — including food, housing, medical aid, and the role that has taken up the bulk of its budget for years, education — to Palestinian refugees exclusively. Because of this mandate, Israel and its supporters blame UNRWA for the definition of “refugee” in the Palestinian context, which includes not only those made refugees by the 1948 and 1967 wars, but also their descendants born into refugee status.
Many on the pro-Israel and Israeli right and center believe doing away with UNRWA would essentially allow Israel to do away with Palestinian refugees because they believe UNRWA is the only thing maintaining that generational definition.
They’re wrong, of course. International law is clear on this point, as the UN states: “Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. Both UNRWA and UNHCR recognize descendants as refugees on this basis, a practice that has been widely accepted by the international community, including both donors and refugee-hosting countries. Palestine refugees are not distinct from other protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, considered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises.”
There’s no ambiguity there, but that hasn’t stopped the controversy. UNRWA has been routinely accused of keeping Palestinians as refugees, not giving them the tools to move on to an independent lifestyle as individuals. This is a key ideological component in the denial of Israel’s responsibility for the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. It absolves Israel of all responsibility for the ongoing poverty and hopelessness that decades of dispossession, occupation, and siege have wrought on Gaza and the West Bank.
Yet, while American politicians don’t think twice about trying to score points by bashing UNRWA, Israelis have always known that they need the agency, despite all their hateful rhetoric about it. For years, Israel would bash UNRWA mercilessly in the media, but would always tell the United States that its operations were necessary, especially in Gaza. Without UNRWA, Israel would be expected to ensure that a humanitarian catastrophe did not ensue, so Israel needs the agency.
In 2018, emboldened by a reckless U.S. administration under Donald Trump, Netanyahu suddenly changed that position and called for the U.S. to dramatically cut its support of UNRWA. Trump eagerly did so. When Netanyahu made that sudden shift, it surprised and disturbed many in his own government who disagreed with the decision. Just about the only positive step Joe Biden took when entering office was to restore UNRWA’s funding. But Trump’s action made the question of UNRWA’s funding even more politically charged than it had always been.
Unable To Investigate
The old cycle seems to be playing out again, but this time, the highly charged politics in Washington are more intricate.
On January 26, Israeli allegations against a dozen UNRWA employees surfaced. The agency immediately fired nine of them and said that two others were dead, hoping their swift and pre-emptive action would stave off rash U.S. actions. Nonetheless, the United States and a host of other countries immediately suspended funding for UNRWA, over the actions of 12 of over 30,000 employees, 13,000 of whom are in Gaza.
It’s worth pausing over that last fact for a moment. Twelve out of 13,000 Gaza employees have caused all of this, and it’s based on evidence that has not been made public. You’d never know that from much of the media coverage, which is, once again, treating Israeli allegations as proven facts. Nor could you tell by the U.S. response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “We haven’t had the ability to investigate [the allegations] ourselves. But they are highly, highly credible.”
That is a stunning statement. They are simply taking Israel’s word for it, and on that basis, they are suspending aid to nearly two million people who need that aid more than anyone in the world.
Recall that Israel, in October 2021, labeled six Palestinian organizations as being connected to “terrorist groups,” specifically referring to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The “evidence” Israel presented was so threadbare that European countries dismissed it as baseless, and even the Biden administration, which has repeatedly supported Israeli claims based on no evidence that turned out to be false, could not accept the Israeli charges, though it avoided explicitly calling out Israel’s attempted deception.
Yet now, Israel has presented a “dossier” that contains its case against the twelve UNRWA workers. The actual evidence has not been made public, and even the United States, as noted above, has admitted it can’t verify the Israeli claims. But the U.S. suspended UNRWA’s funding anyway and led seventeen other countries to follow suit.
Not In Israel’s Immediate Interests
Israel saw matters going in a worrisome direction, however. The funding suspension will still allow UNRWA to operate through February, so there is time to reverse these decisions. And Israel is concerned that if that does not happen, the humanitarian situation will become so dire that Europe and maybe even the United States will not be able to resist the pressure from outraged populations and finally be forced to press for a permanent ceasefire.
Not only would UNRWA’s humanitarian efforts be shut down, but the UNRWA infrastructure that other groups use to distribute aid would also become unavailable. That will significantly accelerate the already crisis-level state of starvation, malnutrition, exposure, infections, curable diseases, lack of clean water, and all the other conditions that are killing Palestinians with accelerating speed, but much more quietly than Israeli bombs and bullets.
Fearing it could be pressed into ending its military operations, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, “UNRWA is currently the international organization that plays the most dominant role in the entry and delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and because there currently is no alternative, Israel is not pushing to shut down UNWRA.”
The Israeli official made clear what the Netanyahu government’s reasoning was. “If UNRWA ceases operating on the ground, this could cause a humanitarian catastrophe that would force Israel to halt its fighting against Hamas. This would not be in Israel’s interest and it would not be in the interest of Israel’s allies either.”
The United States quickly got the message. Even before the Israeli official spoke to The Times of Israel, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield shifted the American tone. “We need to look at the organization, how it operates in Gaza, how they manage their staff and to ensure that people who commit criminal acts, such as these 12 individuals, are held accountable immediately so that UNRWA can continue the essential work that it’s doing,” she said.
It’s not clear what “held accountable” means in this context since UNRWA has already fired the workers in question and even signaled it is open to criminal prosecution of anyone in “acts of terror.” Thomas-Greenfield also said that “fundamental changes” would be needed for funding to be restored. That’s a vague bit of wording that has been used many times in the past in reference to UNRWA. It’s unclear what it means here, exactly, but the general thrust of her speech was that funding should be restored.
“We shouldn’t let [the allegations] cloud the great work that UNRWA does,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “UNRWA has provided essential humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people and UNRWA is the only organization on the ground that has the capacity to continue to provide that assistance.”
So, it would seem that the United States is prepared to back off of UNRWA and restore the funding, right? And then the other countries, who followed the U.S. down this rabbit hole, would follow it back out.
Well, it might not be that simple. As with everything during an election year, politics make this more complicated.
On January 30, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing about UNRWA. The committee heard from one witness, Mara Rudman, who critiqued UNRWA but argued for President Biden’s “pause” on funding, rather than killing the agency. She said, “Is UNRWA, or any of the UN entities perfect? Far from it. The recent termination of 12 UNRWA employees who allegedly participated in the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7, provides one of the more extreme examples. It also shows the need for the ongoing oversight the Biden administration displayed in communicating to the UN that action and thorough investigation was required. For the services UNRWA provides to a desperate population, however, there is no substitute at this time.”
The termination of the twelve employees was a pre-emptive act of desperation and panic. UNRWA was not shown the evidence — merely accusations about the workers. But in this time of incomprehensible human suffering in Gaza, they wanted to do all they can to avoid the worst, so they fired the nine workers who remain alive. It shows how dedicated they are to their mission.
UNRWA submits lists of all its employees in the West Bank and Gaza to Israel. Somehow, Israel had no problem with these twelve, despite their supposedly extensive knowledge of the membership of Hamas and other Palestinian groups. None of this seems to bother Rudman much.
But she was the best of the witnesses, by far. The other three were Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a far-right pro-Israel think tank; Marcus Sheff, CEO of IMPACT-se, a right-wing Israeli institution that leads the propaganda campaign against allegedly inflammatory Palestinian textbooks; and Hillel Neuer of the far-right UN Watch, a group whose mission is to paint the UN as a cesspool of antisemitism.
Their testimony was as biased as one might expect.
Biden’s Incompetence And Mindless Cruelty
For Biden, the hearings, as well as the general tone and tenor in Washington after years of bashing UNRWA, present a problem. If he doesn’t restore UNRWA’s funding, conditions in Gaza will grow much worse very quickly, and calls for a ceasefire will be overwhelming, as will Biden’s downward trend in polls. If he restores UNRWA’s funding, he will find himself under attack from Republicans as well as some Democrats.
In the wake of the hearing this week, one of Israel’s leading advocates in Congress, Brad Schneider (D-IL), bluntly stated, “We have to replace UNRWA with something else. I support getting rid of UNRWA.”
Not to be outdone in anti-Palestinian animus, the ever-eager AIPAC shill, Ritchie Torres (D-NY) tweeted, “UNRWA, long funded by your tax dollars, has been governing Gaza at the behest of Hamas so that Hamas, which sees governing as a distraction, could dedicate itself to murdering Jews in Israel.”
Had Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken not reacted in knee-jerk fashion to the unsubstantiated Israeli allegations, this would be less of a problem. They could have noted that UNRWA immediately fired the workers in question, that it had launched an investigation, and that its work was needed now more than ever. Biden could then have talked about reviewing UNRWA over the coming weeks and months, and made some political show of it without jeopardizing the aid to Gaza, which even the Israeli government doesn’t want to see cut.
But nothing is as familiar to Joe Biden as the own-goal. By suspending the aid to UNRWA, he now has to take positive action to restore it, which will leave him even more vulnerable to bipartisan attack.
Netanyahu, for his part, is not going public with his desire to see UNRWA’s funding continued for a while until a more convenient time for it to be decimated. On the contrary, he is maintains his public call for UNRWA to be terminated, despite the message he conveys more quietly. He is very likely content to undermine Biden as much as he can.
Even government officials from both the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government have been forced to acknowledge the crucial role UNRWA plays. That this has become a political hot potato is not just a testament to Biden’s incompetence, but also to his mindless cruelty and unquenchable hostility to the Palestinian people.