Jan 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Democrats talk UNRWA alternatives with Israeli official

An UNRWA fuel truck queues to enter Palestinian territories from Rafah Border Crossing.

An UNRWA fuel truck queues to enter Palestinian territories from Rafah Border Crossing. Photo: Gehad Hamdy/picture alliance via Getty Images.

A group of Jewish House Democrats on Tuesday discussed possible alternatives to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for delivering aid to Gaza in a meeting with the Israeli military's liaison with Palestinian civilians, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The meeting comes after the U.S. and eight other countries paused funding for the Palestinian refugee agency after Israel accused a dozen UNRWA employees of involvement in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

  • UNRWA has been the primary conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.

What we're hearing: Roughly eight to ten Jewish Democrats met with Col. Elad Goren, a top official at the Israeli Defense Force's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit, according to four members who were present at the meeting.

  • Goren offered about half a dozen possible alternatives to UNRWA, including UNICEF and the U.N. World Food Program, according to the lawmakers.
  • "The point he was trying to make was ... we want there to be humanitarian aid, but UNRWA is a problem," said one member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There need to be alternatives, there are alternatives already, and those are the alternatives that should be used."

What they're saying: Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who was present at the meeting, said he is "hopeful that we take a look at those other international NGOs that might be able to help manage the humanitarian crisis and alleviate it."

The other side: UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini, in a statement on Saturday, said it was "shocking" to see nine countries pull their funding over allegations against a "small group of staff."

  • Lazzarini said the decision was especially surprising given the agency took "immediate action" by firing the accused and launching an investigation.
  • ""It would be immensely irresponsible to sanction an Agency and an entire community it serves because of allegations of criminal acts against some individuals, especially at a time of war, displacement and political crises in the region," he said.
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Tuesday that "fundamental changes" need to be made before funding is resumed, but "we shouldn't let that cloud the great work that UNRWA does."

Zoom in: Goren argued Israel has done its best to facilitate the flow of aid into Gaza and repeated his public denials that mass starvation is taking place in the region.

  • "He disputed the level of hunger and the availability of the food — that there are still open air markets that are operating, that the Israelis are willing to send even more aid," said one lawmaker.
  • He also pointed to inspection bottlenecks as a major culprit in the lack of more aid being sent to Gaza, two of the lawmakers said.
  • Goren said Israel is "taking great pains to make sure that it's doing what it can to figure out who is involved with Hamas and who is truly a civilian," according to Goldman.
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