UN Head Pushing Back on US Efforts to Replace UNRWA in Gaza

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U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17 (World Economic Forum via JNS.org)

Mike Wagenheim

The Biden administration is privately pressing several United Nations agencies to take over the responsibilities of the beleaguered UNRWA but is being rebuffed by U.N. chief António Guterres, according to a report by Devex.

Anticipating that the U.S. Congress will pull funding for UNRWA, the Palestinian-only refugee and social services agency with extensive ties to Hamas, Washington has approached the heads of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other U.N. relief agencies, requesting they begin assuming the work traditionally carried out by UNRWA in Gaza.


The report indicates, however, that Guterres is pressing agency heads to push back on the campaign, rally behind UNRWA, decline donations originally intended for UNRWA and not conduct contingency planning for an expansion of responsibilities in Gaza.

As the scandals around UNRWA have grown since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, United Nations officials have been adamant that UNRWA, long accused of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the only agency in the Strip with the infrastructure and knowledge to deliver critical aid services amid a worsening humanitarian situation, as Israel seeks to rout out Hamas militarily.

Israel accused 12 UNRWA workers of having participated in the Oct. 7 murder and hostage-taking spree, and video released by the Israel Defense Forces shows a Hamas communications center built underneath UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, adding to a lengthy list of evidence showing Hamas utilizes U.N. facilities for terrorist purposes.

Israel and others have accused U.N. officials of instituting an ostrich-like policy of sticking their collective heads in the sand, claiming plausible deniability whenever proof emerges of ties between UNRWA and Palestinian terrorist groups.

According to the report, the Biden administration has tasked U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield with leading the effort to move the United Nations’ operations in Gaza away from UNRWA.

The Devex report indicates that World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain “has indicated a willingness to try to accommodate the U.S. appeal to broaden its role” but has told the Biden administration that the contrary guidance issued by Guterres is limiting its options.

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Guterres, refused to confirm the report, telling reporters on Wednesday that “I’m not going to go into what the secretary-general tells his colleagues, but the general message publicly and privately is the same.”

Dujarric previously said that he would not comment on pending U.S. legislation, per U.N. policy.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told the press on Wednesday that the administration has held conversations with the United Nations and member states “about how to make sure that the important work that UNRWA does is not interrupted.”

But Miller acknowledged the realities of the situation, saying the administration is taking into account a Senate-passed foreign aid bill that would ban future funding for UNRWA. The House of Representatives has not yet taken up the legislation, but the will to defund and disband UNRWA is even stronger in that body.

“It’s not law …, but we have to plan for all possibilities, including the possibility that it becomes law,” Miller said of the Senate bill. “So we’re looking at all the options that may be available to us. But I don’t want to discuss that in detail. It’s internal planning that continues to go on inside the government.”

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