US congressional leaders propose spending bill that would cut UNRWA funding

Biden-backed, bipartisan legislation to avoid government shutdown would ban aid for UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The school in Al-Maghazi refugee camp hit by an Israeli strike
Palestinians gather their belongings and leave the area after Israeli air raids hit the Al-Maghazi School affiliated with UNRWA at Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza Strip, December 27, 2023 [File: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency]

Washington, DC – Congressional leaders in the United States have proposed a spending bill that would avert a government shutdown but ban funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Endorsed by the top Republican and Democratic legislators in the House and the Senate, the $1.2 trillion bill released Thursday morning would ensure continuous funding for large swaths of the US federal government, including the Departments of State and Defense.

It is not uncommon for US legislators to use so-called “must pass” bills to advance their policy priorities and UNRWA has been in the crosshairs of pro-Israel members of Congress for years.

Israel has accused the UN agency, which provides vital services to millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and across the Middle East, of links to Hamas, although with scant evidence.

The funding bill says US funds “may not be used for a contribution, grant, or other payment” to UNRWA until March 2025.

The US has been UNRWA’s largest donor. If passed, the ban would almost certainly lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where UN experts have said famine is looming as a result of Israel’s blockade of the occupied territory.

UNRWA plays a pivotal role in delivering international aid to Gaza and running shelters for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians.

This is the second bill in the US Congress this year that has proposed a prohibition on funds for UNRWA. Last month, the Senate passed foreign assistance legislation that would provide $14bn to Israel while also banning funds to UNRWA.

But while that bill, which also includes aid to Ukraine, has hit hurdles in the Republican-controlled House, Thursday’s bipartisan proposal is likely to be approved on Friday.

If the broader funding bill does not pass, several US agencies would start to run out of money Saturday, leading to what is known as a shutdown, when certain functions of the government cease to operate.

Under the US Constitution, only Congress can approve money allocated for government functions. In recent years, the threat of shutdowns have become more frequent amid growing partisanship on Capitol Hill, leading to legislative impasses.

Rights advocates and Western officials have warned that de-funding UNRWA would exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and destablise Middle Eastern countries with large Palestinian refugee populations, including Lebanon.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government said 12 members of the UN agency participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel.

UNRWA opened an investigation into the allegations. The UN also appointed an independent panel to review the agency.

The Israeli accusations prompted more than a dozen Western countries, led by the US, to pause aid to UNRWA. But in a report seen by many media outlets last month, UNRWA said Israeli forces tortured several of its staff members in Gaza to get them to admit to links to Hamas.


However, the administration of US President Joe Biden has kept the suspension in place, despite acknowledging on several occasions that UNRWA’s work is essential for Palestinians.

The White House has backed both the foreign and domestic spending bills that would ban funding to UNRWA.

“The Administration urges the Congress to send this critical legislation to the President’s desk for signature without delay and to quickly pivot to the bipartisan national security supplemental,” the White House said in a statement on Thursday.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson also welcomed the proposal, hailing the ban on UNRWA funding as a victory for his political party.

“Importantly, it halts funding for the UN agency which employed terrorists who participated in the October 7 attacks against Israel,” Johnson said in a statement.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee lauded pro-Israel measures in the bill as well, including de-funding UNRWA and “unprecedented conditionality” on funds to the UN to combat what the panel called “anti-Israel bias”.

But Congressman Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat, vowed to vote against the measure, citing the UNRWA provision.

“I will vote no on this bill that bans aid to children in Gaza who are dying of hunger,” he wrote against the measure.

“Forget the politics & procedural jargon. This is a test of first principles. The America I believe in must never be indifferent to the man made starvation of children.”

Source: Al Jazeera