The US funding freeze for the UN's main Palestinian aid agency could become permanent

The United States, which is UNRWA's biggest donor, providing $300 million to $400 million a year, said it wanted to see the results of the investigation and corrective measures taken before it would consider re-funding.

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US officials are preparing to freeze funding for the main UN agency for the Palestinians to make it permanent due to opposition in Congress, even as US President Joseph Biden's administration insists the aid agency's humanitarian work is essential, Reuters reports.

The US, along with more than a dozen countries, suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRVA) in January after Israel accused 12 of the agency's 13.000 staff in Gaza of involvement in the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas. .

The UN launched an investigation into the allegations, and UNRVA dismissed some staff after Israel provided the agency with information about the allegations.

The United States, which is UNRWA's biggest donor, providing $300 million to $400 million a year, said it wanted to see the results of that investigation and corrective measures taken before it would consider refinancing. Even if the moratorium is lifted, only about $300.000 - what's left of already appropriated funds - will be released to UNRVI. Anything further requires congressional approval.

Bipartisan opposition in Congress to UNRWA funding makes it unlikely that the US will soon resume regular donations, even as countries such as Sweden and Canada have said they will restart their contributions, Reuters writes.

Additional funding legislation in the US Congress that includes military aid to Israel and Ukraine contains a provision that would block UNRWA from receiving funding if it becomes law. The Biden administration supports the bill.

US officials say they recognize the "critical role" UNRVA plays in distributing aid inside the densely populated enclave, which has been on the brink of starvation for the past five months due to the Israeli offensive.

"We have to make plans for the fact that Congress could make that pause permanent," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on Tuesday.

Washington has considered working with humanitarian partners on the ground, such as UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP), to continue providing aid.

But officials are aware that UNRWA is difficult to replace.

"There are other organizations that are now providing some distribution of aid inside Gaza, but that's primarily a role that UNRVA is equipped to play that no one else has, because of its years of work and its distribution network and its history inside Gaza," Miller said.

"UNRVA is a front"

Several Democrats in the US Senate, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen, along with some progressive members of the US House of Representatives, opposed an indefinite ban on UNRVE funding.

However, any new funding would require the support of at least some Republicans, who hold the majority in the House of Representatives. Many expressed their opposition to UNRVI.

"UNRVA is a front, plain and simple," Rep. Brian Mast, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability, said in a statement.

"It's masquerading as an aid organization while building infrastructure to support Hamas... It's literally funneling American tax dollars into terrorism," Mast said, according to Reuters.

Asked to comment on Mast's claims, UNRVA's director of communications, Juliette Tuma, said the independent audit led by former French foreign minister Catherine Colonna was assessing "the measures UNRVA has in place regarding the neutrality of the agency, its staff and programs."

"We encourage member states, individuals and entities to share any information about allegations against UNRVA with the investigation, or with the ongoing review, in order to investigate them," Touma said.

UNRVA was established in 1949 by a resolution of the UN General Assembly following the war that followed the establishment of Israel, when 700.000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.

Today, it directly employs 30.000 Palestinians, serving the civic and humanitarian needs of 5,9 million descendants of those refugees, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and in vast camps in neighboring Arab countries.

In Gaza, UNRVA runs the enclave's schools, its primary health clinics and other social services, and distributes humanitarian aid.

William Deere, director of UNRVA's office in Washington, told Reuters that US support accounts for one-third of UNRVA's budget.

"It will be very difficult to overcome," he said. "Don't forget that UNRVA is more than Gaza. It is health care, education and social services. It is East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon."

Hamas fighters, who rule Gaza, killed 1.200 people in an attack on Israel on October 7 and took 253 hostages, according to Israeli reports, in an attack that sparked one of the bloodiest wars in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters reports.

Israel's military campaign of retaliation against the densely populated enclave has killed more than 31.000 Palestinians, according to Gaza authorities, while infrastructure has been destroyed and hundreds of thousands are now close to starvation.

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