President Biden asked Congress to approve $9 billion in emergency aid for global humanitarian crises and it also leverages at least $100 million in aid to the Palestinians from existing federal funds. But that $9 billion — intended in part to replenish UNRWA’s dwindling supplies — risks falling short under a bipartisan Senate deal to fund the government and provide military assistance to Israel . Senate Democrats are already struggling to convince their Republican counterparts to support aid to Ukraine, which they view as a higher priority. Discussions on humanitarian aid are also in trouble, as some Republicans object.
The House passed its own bill to send $14 billion in aid to Israel earlier this month, but it did not include any humanitarian money. And on Saturday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) unveiled a U.S. government funding plan that also excludes humanitarian aid, although its prospects for passage remain unclear.
The ongoing fighting could shape the U.S. response to the conflict and undermine the humanitarian response to the war. Some Republicans say Hamas used aid stolen from UNRWA to carry out its massacre of around 1,200 people in Israel on October 7 – accusations that international humanitarian groups and White House officials categorically deny.
Many congressional Republicans have complained about UNRWA for years, but stepped up their criticism in the wake of the Hamas attack.
“I will not vote for a bill that includes UNRWA money, period,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Flor.), one of the leaders of the GOP effort to eliminate the financing of the organization. “There is no way to prevent this from reaching Hamas. These people have American hostages.
When asked if he would support any form of humanitarian aid for Gaza, Scott replied: “I wouldn’t… You can’t guarantee it will get to Gaza.” »
Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said he would vote against any attempt to give more money to UNRWA. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Wednesday accused the United Nations of “unbridled anti-Semitism” and criticized UNRWA.
“I am very concerned about the way we are spending humanitarian aid in Gaza,” Ricketts said, noting allegations that UNRWA members celebrated attack on Israel. “I don’t see the need for it at the moment, as long as the war continues.”
In a statement, the White House said there were no known instances of U.S. aid to UNRWA being diverted to Hamas or any other sanctioned group in Gaza or the West Bank in recent years. The U.S. government, UNRWA’s largest donor, is providing more than $371 million to the humanitarian organization this year and has given more than $1 billion since 2021. The Trump administration suspended funding to the group in 2018 , but Biden reversed this decision shortly after. take office.
UNRWA is currently demanding more aid and had already reduced its services even before the war began. More than any other organization, UNRWA is widely seen as essential to the distribution of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies in Gaza – with needs in the territory having exploded in recent weeks. The agency also works in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
In addition to providing food to more than a million Gazans, officials say the organization currently provides shelter to nearly 700,000 people across its 149 facilities. The agency itself also suffers a direct toll; UNRWA reports more than 100 members of its staff have been killed since Israeli airstrikes began last month, shortly after the Hamas attack, the largest number of UN aid workers killed in such a short period of conflict. An air strike struck an UNRWA facility in Gaza City on Wednesday..
The rapid deterioration of the situation on the ground has only reinforced the need for humanitarian assistance. UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini on Thursday asked world leaders to contribute $481 million to meet “colossal” humanitarian needs that are “increasing by the hour”, adding that she had met with children without bread or water.
“Many bodies that have been stuck under the rubble for so long are disintegrating, and now stray dogs are eating body parts and carrying diseases out of the rubble,” said Raed M. Sharif, an international development expert at the Canada who is in communication with his brother, who is currently staying at an UNRWA site in northern Gaza with his wife and four children aged 13, 12, 11 and 8 years old. “UNRWA is currently the only organization capable of providing vital support in this part of Gaza. .”
The White House statement said the State Department exercises “rigorous oversight” over UNRWA, including antiterrorism certifications and routine third-party audits.
“If UNRWA couldn’t function in Gaza, it would be devastating under normal circumstances, but doing it now would be much worse. There are no words to describe how horrible that would be,” said Yousef Munayyer, former executive director of the American Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “This is just bullshit from the Republicans that is completely untrue and cruel. Do you want to take food out of the mouths of refugee children? What’s wrong with you?”
But conservatives and some foreign policy groups have long highlighted what they see as links between UNRWA and Hamas.
During the October 7 attack, the Israel Defense Forces said, some Hamas fighters used United Nations aid medical kits. At least half a dozen of the 13,000 UN workers in Gaza also approved the attack on Facebook and other social media platforms, according to UN Watch, a Geneva-based group. The Associated Press also reported in 2017, an UNRWA employee was suspended after being elected to the Hamas political bureau. Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, criticized the relief agency in his remarks Friday.
“UNRWA officials are not only complicit: they are actively participating in Hamas terrorism, thanks to the American taxpayer,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) in a statement.
Some Republican senators took a more moderate tone, saying they support humanitarian aid in theory as long as it does not benefit Hamas.
“If we can find a way forward with Israel’s agreement that would not allow Hamas to get this aid, I think the Americans have always been generous and they can’t stand to see people suffer.” , said Sen. Mike Rounds (RS.D.). said. Still, he added, “the United Nations could be a tool to use, but not without clear evidence that it has safeguards in place so that Hamas gets nothing.”
Yet if UNRWA is excluded as a vehicle, it is unclear how aid could reach Gaza.
Established in 1949 following the Arab-Israeli War when Israel declared independence, the UN agency is responsible for ensuring that aid delivered by trucks entering Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt reaches its destination. final destination, to ship the goods and store them in UNRWA warehouses. .
Already before the war, the group was responsible for transporting food for 1.2 million refugees in Gaza, importing 60 percent of all food in the territory and educating more than 330,000 children. About 2/3 of the population of Gaza are refugees or descendants of refugees displaced or forced to leave their homes after the creation of Israel, adding personal stakes to the fears of many Gazans now that the current war will leave them once again permanently displaced in what the Palestinians are already calling a “second Nakba.”
Even some experts who are convinced that Hamas is taking over UNRWA say the U.S. government should continue to fund the organization.
“If Hamas makes a little money and steals a little money from humanitarian aid, but the majority of that money goes to people who need it, then that’s the price of maintaining people alive,” said Hamas director Matthew Levitt. Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a foreign policy think tank. “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest for innocent Palestinian civilians – who have no power to act against Hamas – to make them suffer more than they are.” Already.”