Allegations UNRWA collaborated with Hamas are ‘flat-out lies’: Van Hollen

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) ripped into Israel’s allegations that the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency, commonly referred to as UNRWA, is a proxy for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, arguing the accusations are an attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to eliminate the agency.

“There’s no doubt that the claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu and others are making, that somehow UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat-out lies,” Van Hollen said Sunday in an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “If you look at the person who’s in charge of operations on the ground for UNRWA, it’s about a 20-year U.S. Army veteran. You can be sure he’s not in cahoots with Hamas.”

UNRWA came under scrutiny earlier this year after Israel claimed 12 of the agency’s employees participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel in a surprise assault. More than 240 people were taken hostage, and more than 100 are believed to still be held captive.

No substantial evidence has been presented to support these allegations, though UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini earlier this month said “serious action” was taken nonetheless, including the termination of the alleged members’ contracts.

“Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA since at least 2017. That’s been his goal, not just in Gaza, but also in the other places you talked about,” Van Hollen said.

CBS News anchor Margaret Brennan further pressed the senator on why he believes Netanyahu is trying to end UNRWA and pointed out the agency is one of the biggest distributors of aid in Gaza.

“Well, that’s exactly right. And there have been allegations made by the Netanyahu government that up to 14 of those 13,000 people were involved in the horrific Oct. 7 attacks,” he said. “We should investigate it, we should hold all those people accountable. But … let’s not hold 2 million innocent Palestinian civilians who are dying of starvation, let’s not hold them, essentially, accountable for the bad acts of 14 people.”

Van Hollen further argued Netanyahu wants to dismantle UNRWA because he sees “them as a means to continue the hopes of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own. And he has been opposed to a two-state solution. And this has been his primary objective, stopping a two-state solution.”

The U.S., along with nearly a dozen other nations, has paused funding to the agency in the wake of the allegations. UNRWA at the time said it has a strict policy of “neutrality,” while recognizing the challenging circumstances in Gaza due to Hamas’s rule.

Republicans in Congress have heightened calls to block further funding to the agency, while Democrats have both acknowledged the gravity of the accusation and also stressed the allegation applies to a very small fraction of the more than 30,000 employees of the agency. The U.S. funds UNRWA through an account covered by the annual State Department funding bill, which is due on May 22.

Van Hollen warned of the wide-reaching impacts of cutting UNRWA funding in Gaza, which has largely been devastated by Israel’s bombardment following the Oct. 7 attacks.

“And if you get rid of UNRWA in Gaza today, it is the primary distribution system for food and aid. So if you cut off funding for UNRWA and Gaza entirely, it means more people will starve, more people won’t get the medical assistance they need. And so it would be a huge mistake to cut them off,” he said.

The Maryland Democrat was among a group of Senators last week to demand President Biden comply with the Foreign Assistance Act and cut off military aid to Israel. The senators argued Section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act requires the Biden administration to stop the sale and transfer of weapons to Israel if Netanyahu’s government continues to block humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

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