Hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid are pouring in from around the world to rebuild Gaza after the recent war between Israel and more than a dozen Palestinian terrorist groups. But rebuilding territory controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group designated by the United States, is complicated. US laws impose conditions on the flow of funds. But it is not that simple. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the United Nations agency responsible for delivering aid to Palestinians, does not consider violent extremist groups in Gaza to be terrorist organizations. Not even Hamas.
Despite this, donor countries promise to prevent aid from going to terrorists. It should be noted that many of these donor countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have also designated Hamas entities under their anti-terrorism laws. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would “work with partners to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from these reconstruction efforts.” UNRWA is one of these partners. It is currently expected to receive $ 150 million in US taxpayer funds this year. Unless the State Department makes UNRWA funding conditional on the agency’s compliance with US terrorist designations, US taxpayer funds could go to any of the fifteen Palestinian terrorist groups that launched rockets without discrimination against Israel during the recent war.
Indeed, Hamas is not the only one concerned. At least three groups that the United States officially considers terrorist entities participated in Hamas’s campaign against Israel: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (JIP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), according to Joe Truzman of FDD Long War Diary.
UNRWA procurement contracts suggest that funds are already disbursed to PFLP affiliates. As recently as March, UNRWA was funding the Union of Health Work Committees (UHWC), a Gaza-based entity with close ties to the PFLP. Earlier this month, Israel tasked several staff from the UHWC partner organization with funneling funds to the PFLP. Like Hamas, the PFLP receives financial support from Iran. The “political and military wings” of the PFLP have received financial and logistical support from Iran since at least 2013, according to a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza. Iran’s financial support for Hamas and the PFLP is well documented in the official Iranian government media.
During the eleven days of the recent conflict, the military wing of the PFLP broadcast videos of its uniformed fighters throwing projectiles at Israel, posted obituaries for its fighters, and claimed credit for Arab Israelis wounding IDF soldiers in inside Israel. Despite conclusive evidence that the PFLP receives funds from Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel, UNRWA continues to send funds from US taxpayers to the UHWC, an entity of the PFLP.
On May 18, the PFLP posted a photo of a destroyed Palestinian building on social media and called on UNRWA to take care of the building’s former residents. In a May 25 Arabic-language Telegram article, the PFLP rebuked the UNRWA chief for admitting that Israel was carrying out military strikes with “precision” and “sophistication.” The outcry from the PFLP and other Palestinian terrorist groups prompted UNRWA Gaza director Matthias Schmale to change his initial statement. Palestinian factions later declared Schmale to be persona non-grata in Gaza. These episodes provide insight into the power dynamics in Gaza. As long as Palestinian terrorist groups rule Gaza, UNRWA will continue to operate at their request.
While Washington is now ready to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza, Congress must condition US aid to ensure it does not go to terrorist entities. UNRWA is unlikely to adopt aggressive policies in this regard. But Congress can take concrete steps to ensure that UNRWA does not become an intermediary for terrorist financing. The State Department should warn that it will stop and recover US funding if UNRWA does not follow the letter and spirit of US laws to prevent terrorist financing.
Given that UNRWA sent more than $ 4.8 million to the PFLP-linked UHWC, Congress may already be justified in opening an investigation. To date, UNRWA is only subject to a semi-annual audit conducted by the representative of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Board of Auditors. Congress shouldn’t have to depend on China to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funding is spent appropriately.
Congress should also address another major UNRWA failure: the agency’s schools teach violence and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Future US assistance to UNRWA should be conditioned so that textbooks used in UNRWA schools do not include anti-Semitic, incitement or extremist content.
In the coming months, the State Department will work with Israel and Egypt to identify mechanisms to prevent Hamas from filling its coffers. But until UNRWA takes concrete action to prevent funds from going to Palestinian militant groups who participated in the recent war, there is a loophole. The need for humanitarian aid in Gaza is real. It is time for Congress to ensure that aid does not go to Palestinian terrorist groups, holding both the State Department and the United Nations to account.
Julia Schulman is senior director of special projects at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based non-partisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.