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US lawmakers clash over Unrwa funding in heated congressional hearing

Unrwa critics latched on to allegations that employees have ties to Hamas, others raised concerns about the credibility of the reporting on Israel's accusations
Protester Leslie Angeline of CodePink is removed by members of US Capitol Police during a hearing before the subcommittee on oversight and accountability of House Foreign Affairs Committee at US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 30 January 2024 (AFP)

The Israeli intelligence "dossier" that alleged ties between Hamas and the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency rippled through Congress on Tuesday, revealing a sharp partisan divide over whether the US should resume funding Unrwa.

“Unrwa is in cahoots with Hamas,” Republican Congress Brian Mast said at the opening of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Unrwa.

Republican Congress Chris Smith echoed his criticism, alleging that Unrwa was promoting “twisted antisemitism” and “poisoning the minds of children”.

Unrwa has long been in the crosshairs of Republican lawmakers. Former US President Donald Trump suspended funding for Unrwa in 2018, only for the Biden administration to reverse the decision.

On Friday, the Biden administration announced it would pause funding for the agency after an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, citing Israeli intelligence reports, which alleges 12 members of Unrwa took part in the Hamas-led 7 October attack on southern Israel.

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Since then, Australia, Canada, Italy, Finland, the UK, Switzerland, and the Netherlands have also announced they would halt Unrwa funding.

War on Gaza: Defunding Unrwa is a war against all Palestinians
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Palestinian officials and aid workers have warned that the move risks worsening the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow voiced those concerns.

Citing the reports of Unrwa involvement in the 7 October attack, he warned that “the horrifying and inexcusable actions of roughly a dozen people shouldn’t speak to 13,000 Unrwa employees in Gaza", adding that he had  “real concerns” that the decision to halt funding without finding a replacement to Unrwa would harm US national security. 

“Conditions in which people are starving, fearful or hopeless do not bring peace. And they will not bring security to Israel.”

Besides claiming that 12 Unrwa workers participated in the attack, Israeli officials reportedly told their US counterparts that around 1,200 of Unrwa’s roughly 13,000 employees in Gaza have links to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which the US considers terrorist organisations.

The Biden administration's response to the report, which the WSJ said was based on “sensitive signals intelligence as well as cellphone tracking data, interrogations of captured Hamas fighters and documents” found on dead fighters, marked a victory for Israel, which has waged a decades-long campaign against Unwra.

Social media questions WSJ report

The fallout over the Wall Street Journal article continued to reverberate on social media where some criticised the report, on the grounds that one of the journalists who contributed to the article has close ties to a former member of the Israeli military spokesperson’s office.

Social media users on X noted that WSJ contributor Carrie Keller-Lynn is close friends with Aliza Landes, a former soldier in the Israeli military spokesperson’s office who helped boost the department's social media presence. 

Landes' father, Richard Allen Landes, is a prominent American academic who coined the word “pallywood”, a derogatory label blending "Palestine" with "Hollywood."

The term is used to discredit Palestinian suffering as fake or embellished to gain sympathy in the media.

“It is not appropriate for Carrie Keller-Lynn to be part of the journalistic team reporting on these allegations in the WSJ. Her past close relationship w/ Aliza Landes, who was assigned to the IDF Spokesperson Unit, is an important matter not the be overlooked,” one social media user wrote on X.

“It begs the question why a journalist with clear links to the Israeli Defence Forces is the one doing the reporting on a matter heavily based on IDF intelligence gathering.”

Like other Israeli journalists, Landes also served in the Israeli military, which is mandatory for Israeli citizens.

Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, critiqued the WSJ report as "a press release thinly disguised as a news article about an Israeli 'intelligence dossier' on UNRWA."

Middle East Eye reached out repeatedly to the WSJ for comment on the report but didn’t receive a reply by the time of publication.

Unrwa critics latch on to Hamas allegations

Despite the widespread critique online, critics of Unrwa who testified in front of lawmakers on Tuesday latched on to the Israeli allegations. 

“Unrwa is a horror show that is decades in the making co-produced by the US taxpayer,” Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a pro-Israel think tank, said.

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“7 October is the logical conclusion of Unrwa.”

But Mara Rudman, a national security expert at the Miller Center, warned lawmakers that cutting aid to Unrwa would worsen the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and have a negative impact on US national security.

“For the services Unrwa provides to a desperate population, there is no substitute at this time,” she said.

“Having two million famished, increasingly desperate people….threatens Israeli security and stability.”

Her testimony elicited an angry response from Mast, who questioned why Palestinians need a separate UN agency to deliver humanitarian aid: “No Unrwa for Rohingya. No Unrwa for Sudanese," he said. 

Unrwa 'shell game' 

As Washington gears up for the 2024 US presidential election, the Biden administration's response to the Israel-Palestine war is coming under greater scrutiny by Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israeli advocates. 

Throughout the hearing, protestors demanding a ceasefire in Gaza interrupted some lawmakers. 

Meanwhile, Mast slammed the Biden administration for not cutting aid to Unrwa earlier and claimed that Rudman's testimony reflected the administration's "shell game" of secretly supporting the agency. 

“You were invited here as the Democrat witness of choice….and in your remarks, you say you are here to make the case for the continued support for Unrwa."

Crow later accused Mast of "mischaracterising" Rudman’s testimony, by saying that she refused to state conditions under which the US would be advised to cut Unrwa aid. 

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