Israel's claims of UNRWA's Hamas ties put agency's future in jeopardy

The U.S. has cut off funding to the agency after the allegations were made.

Since the outbreak of the Israeli-Gaza conflict, the United Nations agency representing Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has provided aid to Gazan civilians facing dire humanitarian conditions.

But the agency's future is now in jeopardy after several nations, including the United States, suspended funding after the Israeli government published evidence allegedly showing that 16 UNRWA members were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack.

Despite calls for the group to be dissolved, UNRWA officials and humanitarian groups have pleaded for help, contending that aid for the Palestinians caught in the crossfire is needed now more than ever as the humanitarian crisis deepens.

Adam Bouloukos, a UNRWA director, speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

"People's lives are on the line because they would have no other alternative," Adam Bouloukos, a UNRWA director, told ABC News.

UNRWA has been in operation since 1949 and has provided education, health care and other basic services in Gaza, the West Bank, and parts of Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Since the Israeli-Hamas war began, agency leaders said they have been working around the clock to provide aid and shelter to the growing number of Gazan refugees.

"The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is like nothing we in the UN have seen," Bouloukos said.

Aid is distributed at a UNRWA facility.
ABC News

However, UNRWA's integrity and future have been on the line since January after Israel Defense Forces initially accused 12 UNRWA employees of being directly involved with the Oct. 7 attacks.

Israeli officials say they now have evidence implicating four more UNRWA workers.

A dossier released by the IDF alleged six UNRWA staff members crossed into Israel on that day and four UNRWA workers were involved in the taking of hostages.

UNRWA terminated the accused employees after the allegations were made public and an independent investigation by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight is ongoing.

Israeli officials have released some evidence of the alleged terrorism by the accused members, including a video allegedly showing an UNRWA employee helping to move Oct. 7 victim Jonathan Samerano's lifeless body into the trunk of an UNRWA vehicle before it was driven into Gaza.

UNRWA said it has no way of verifying the video and has urged Israeli officials to hand over all evidence to investigators.

Ayelet Samerano, Jonathan's mother, told ABC News she is outraged that someone working for a UN body could be implicated in the murder and abduction of her son.

Ayelet Samerano speaks with ABC News.
ABC News

"It's unbelievable. That's a worldwide organization that should take care of people and should take care the human rights … and now it's the opposite," she said.

The U.S. and several Western allies paused funding to the agency following the Israeli report in January.

However, Israel's accusations of ties between UNRWA and Hamas go beyond the October 7 allegations against a number of individuals.

The IDF has published several videos saying they show UNRWA food supplies were found in Hamas tunnels. In one video, they claim Hamas weaponry was stored in UNRWA sacks.

The IDF alleged Hamas tunnels ran underneath UNRWA properties, including the agency's headquarters in Gaza.

UNRWA said it moved out of its Gaza headquarters weeks before those deep underground tunnels were discovered, and empty UNRWA sacks are often recycled and used in Gaza to store other goods.

In several statements, UNRWA has rejected any suggestion that it's been aiding Hamas and accused Israel of attempting to demonize the agency.

The accusations against the agency have sparked protests from Israelis who have been blocking the route for aid trucks into Gaza.

Israeli officials have also publicly called for the group to be dissolved.

Despite the financial cuts and the opposition, UNRWA has continued to provide its services in Gaza, with many other humanitarian groups backing it.

The UNRWA has been providing aid assistance in Gaza.
ABC News

"You know that many NGOs use UNRWA's facilities to store their aid. They rely on UNRWA to deliver the aid that they procure," Dr. Thaer Ahmad, of the American-based NGO MedGlobal, said in a statement.

Ahmad also refuted the allegations that the agency is helping Hamas.

"If you want to say that there have been allegations made against individual employees, I think that's something that needs to be looked into. That's very serious. But if you're talking about the institution itself, I don't think that anybody that has any sort of knowledge about what they do and how long they've existed for would make a similar accusation," he said.

He and others noted that UNRWA has suffered major losses during the conflict.

More than 170 UNRWA workers have been killed since the war began, with one being killed by an Israeli air strike on a food distribution center last month, according to the agency.

The agency said dozens of its schools and its Gaza headquarters have been struck by the Israeli military.

Canada and the European Union have recently resumed funding to UNRWA and the agency has agreed to allow EU officials to help screen employees for possible extremist links.

embed Aid is given out to refugees in Gaza.
ABC News

However Congress has voted to block U.S. funding for at least a year, meaning UNRWA's entire operation is in peril.

"They provide something like 30 to 40% of our funding," Bouloukos said of the U.S. "It looks like we have funding through the end of April, and that's very, very tight."

Humanitarian groups have warned of a full-scale famine in Gaza if nothing is done.

Ahmad stressed that it would be impossible to replace UNRWA if it were dissolved.

"No one, not even if all of the NGOs combined came together, would be able to replicate what they're doing on the ground," he said.

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