The State Department downplayed the significance on Tuesday of its decision to pause funding for the main U.N. aid agency in Gaza, explaining that it had already provided virtually all the money allocated by Congress for that purpose and that the Biden administration hoped the matter could be resolved quickly.
More than 99 percent of American dollars approved by Congress for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, has been sent to the agency, the State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, said on Tuesday.
The State Department paused the money “temporarily” on Friday after accusations by Israel that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, with some holding hostages within Gaza. At least 17 other donor nations have also suspended their funding to the agency, according to the group U.N. Watch.
Human rights groups and progressive Democrats in Congress have denounced the move, saying that it will deprive innocent Palestinians of desperately needed aid. But Mr. Miller said the State Department had sent all but $300,000 of about $121 million budgeted for UNRWA to the agency, suggesting that the near-term effect of the U.S. action within Gaza will be minor.
U.S. officials suggested that the real question is how much more money Congress will be willing to approve for an agency that many Republicans condemn for what they call anti-Israel bias and Hamas sympathies. Underscoring that uncertainty, witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday denounced UNRWA and called for its restructuring or replacement.
Israel’s government says that at least 12 employees of the agency participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, and that UNRWA employs as many as 1,300 Hamas members. Israel estimates that the attack left roughly 1,200 people dead; another 240 people were taken hostage.
On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the United States had not independently confirmed the charges but deemed them “highly credible.”
Before the Israeli allegations, the State Department had planned to schedule its next payment to UNRWA in early summer, although a long-running budget standoff in Congress leaves it unclear when a new State Department budget might be approved. And even then, the money must win the support of Republicans who were hostile to UNRWA even before its purported links to the attack in Israel emerged.
Before any new money approved by Congress reaches UNRWA, the State Department must end its declared pause on any funding for the agency. Mr. Miller said the timing of that “will depend on the investigation that UNRWA is undertaking, that the United Nations is undertaking, and whatever steps they put into place.” He said Biden administration officials hoped that could happen “quickly,” because “we very much support the work that UNRWA does. We think it’s critical.”
His remarks came amid anger at the decision by donor countries to pause their support to UNRWA. In a statement on Monday, Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said it was “shocking, indeed inhumane,” that governments, including the United States, had paused their funding. She noted that the dozen employees, who have been fired, were among an UNRWA staff of 30,000 people. (At least 152 of the agency’s staff members have been killed in Israel’s military operation in Gaza, according to UNRWA.)
And several progressives condemned the Biden administration’s move, including Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, who said in a statement on Tuesday that “we cannot allow millions to suffer because of the actions of 12 people. The U.S. and other countries must restore funding to stave off this humanitarian catastrophe.”
While the amount the United States is withholding is a small fraction of UNRWA’s roughly $1.2 billion annual budget, agency officials warn that funding freezes by numerous donor countries collectively could threaten the group’s humanitarian work. The United States has in most years been UNRWA’s largest single donor, but other donors collectively provide most of the agency’s annual budget.
In mid-October, President Biden also announced $100 million in emergency aid for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which the White House said in a statement would be provided “through trusted partners including U.N. agencies” and international nongovernmental organizations.
In Washington, the question of UNRWA funding has acquired partisan overtones. Republicans have for years echoed Israeli complaints that UNRWA employees sympathize with Palestinian militants and have allowed weapons to be stored in their facilities. (UNRWA has denied many such accusations over the years.)
President Trump cut off all U.S. funding for UNRWA in 2018. Appearing on Fox News on Tuesday, Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is challenging Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, took credit for persuading him. “I know UNRWA well,” she said, arguing that schools affiliated with the agency taught “terrorist hate against Israelis.”
“For years, there has been extensive evidence that UNRWA is not a neutral arbiter, and that their anti-Israel bias is widespread and systemic,” the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, said in a statement last week. “Yet the Biden administration inexplicably restarted funding the organization in 2021.”
Mr. Blinken tangled with the thorny matter just before the Hamas attacks. Last fall, Republicans were temporarily blocking $75 million in food assistance budgeted for UNRWA in Gaza. Amid warnings of mass hunger, Mr. Blinken circumvented the Republican hold and freed the money.
The State Department did not announce the action publicly, but a U.S. branch of UNRWA thanked Mr. Blinken on social media on Oct. 3. Hamas militants breached Gaza’s border fence with Israel four days later.