‘Moral failure’: US House approves bill that would ban UNRWA funding

Palestinian rights advocates decry push to de-fund UN agency for Palestinian refugees amid starvation crisis in Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians
Displaced Palestinians collect food in Rafah amid the hunger crisis in Gaza, March 11, 2024 [File: AFP]

Washington, DC – The United States House of Representatives has approved a $1.2 trillion funding bill that would ban funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) amid the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The measure, which passed in a 286 to 134 vote on Friday, would keep the government fully functioning in advance of a partial shutdown deadline.

The proposed legislation now goes to the Senate, which must pass it by midnight on Friday, when several government agencies would start running out of money. President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill into law immediately, if the Democratic-controlled upper chamber of Congress passes the legislation as expected.

The measure faced opposition from dozens of far-right Republicans, who argued that it does not curb government spending enough. After the vote, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a motion to remove House Speaker Mike Johnson from his post for his endorsement of the bipartisan spending deal.

Twenty-two Democrats, many of whom had expressed concerns about the UNRWA provision, joined Republicans in opposing the plan.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), called the passage of the bill “an incredible moral failure”.

“Our political process has chosen to cut US funding to literally the only entity that can address the level of suffering and scale of suffering that’s happening in Gaza right now,” Berry told Al Jazeera.

Looming Gaza famine

The bill comes as the United Nations has been warning of the growing risk of famine in Gaza amid the Israeli blockade. Gaza officials have said that many children have already died of dehydration and starvation over the past month.

Several progressives had slammed the ban on US aid to UNRWA, which provides vital services on the ground to Palestinians in Gaza and across the Middle East.

In a speech on the House floor on Thursday, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib accused Israel of committing “some of the most horrific crimes against humanity” in this century.

“The Israeli government has been intentionally starving the Palestinian people,” she said.

Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, added that UNRWA is the “major organisation that provides desperately needed food and humanitarian assistance to starving Palestinians”.

“Members here – all of them – are now going to be contributing to the starvation of Palestinian families,” she said.

Senator Chris Van Hollen also decried the looming ban, expressing disappointment and frustration at the measure.

“UNRWA is the primary means of distributing desperately-needed assistance in Gaza – so denying funding for UNRWA is tantamount to denying food to starving people and restricting medical supplies to injured civilians,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

“It also means cutting support for services – including schooling and healthcare – for over a million Palestinians in the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.”

Van Hollen did not say whether he would vote against the bill. Last month, the senator voted in favour of proposed legislation that would provide $14bn in additional aid to Israel and defund UNRWA, despite his criticism of the war on Gaza and advocacy for the UN agency.

Israel had accused UNRWA of ties to Hamas – allegations rejected by the agency and major humanitarian groups.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government said around a dozen UNRWA employees took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel. UNRWA opened a probe 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.

Many of the countries that had paused their assistance to UNRWA, including Canada and Australia, resumed the funding in the past weeks. But the Biden administration has continued to withhold the funds.

Palestinian refugees

On Thursday, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the de-funding of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees as “unconscionable”.

“It’s also not grounded in sound facts,” she said. “We have intelligence assessments that speak to this and I find it highly political.”

The US funding bill includes other pro-Israel measures, including strict restrictions on US humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

Berry, of AAI, said it was important to put the looming ban in the context of the broader, years-long Israeli efforts to deligitimise UNRWA.

The UN agency provides healthcare and education amongst other essential services across the region to millions Palestinian refugees – people who were forcibly displaced from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel and their descendants.

Berry said while the defunding UNRWA during a starvation crisis in Gaza is “shocking”, the issue is even bigger than the aid to the Palestinian territory; it is part of the push to “erase Palestinian refugees”.

The White House, which is typically involved in setting the parameters of funding bills, has endorsed the proposed legislation, suggesting that Biden is on board with de-funding UNRWA.

“Biden administration policy since October 7 has been tragically flawed,” Berry told Al Jazeera. “And instead of course-correcting, instead of digging out the hole that they have placed the US in, and that has harmed the US world standing, they have not been able to actually pivot.”

Source: Al Jazeera