By Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration would redirect any funds for UNRWA to other aid agencies working in Gaza if Congress passes legislation that would bar funding of the main U.N. agency for Palestinians, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said on Monday.
Washington last month said it was temporarily pausing new funding to UNRWA while it investigates claims a dozen staff took part in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. A bill unveiled by senators on Sunday included a provision blocking the agency from receiving funds made available by the bill.
Patel said at a press briefing that the bill, negotiated by the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of senators, included $1.4 billion for humanitarian aid for Gaza, but that could be sent to the U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF or other aid groups.
“This is tangible money that we believe will save lives and have a direct impact on Palestinian civilians, and we will redirect funding for UNRWA to other partners to provide assistance in Gaza," he said.
The State Department has said it has provided $121 million to UNRWA in the current fiscal year, and that only $300,000 of appropriated funds remained for the agency. Washington usually gives UNRWA between $300 million-$400 million annually.
UNRWA warned last week that it might be forced to shut down its operations by the end of February if funding does not resume, after the United States and other important donors suspended funding.
Israel alleged that 12 of the agency's 13,000 staff in Gaza were involved in Hamas' attacks that Israel said killed 1,200 people and sparked an Israeli assault that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza authorities.
An Israeli official told Reuters that the Foreign Ministry has assigned a task force to put together a proposal for replacing UNRWA, and that among candidate agencies are the WFP and Washington's USAID.
Washington backs UNRWA for its "critical work" as the main aid agency for Palestinians but wants to see "concrete results" from UNRWA's investigation into Israel's claims, Patel said, declining to say when the U.S. would make a decision on restarting funding.
"We believe that we can continue to do important work through other NGOs and other partners and, simultaneously, we'll continue have conversations with donor countries about supporting UNRWA," Patel said.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)