Lawmakers Want To Prohibit Funding of UN Palestinian Aid Agency With Latest Budget Bill

Lawmakers have introduced a spending package that would prohibit funding the United Nations agency primarily responsible for supplying lifesaving aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

The provision, included in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan budget plan proposed Thursday in an effort to avoid a partial U.S. government shutdown, comes as Palestinians face a starvation crisis because of Israel’s ongoing military offensive that began after Hamas militants launched a deadly attack Oct. 7.

House Republicans promoted the spending package by citing several ways it would assist Israel in its offensive, the most notable being the prohibition of funding the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) through March 2025. The provision is part of the proposed State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Act that’s included in the spending package.

The provision, however, brought criticism from some Democrats concerned about the lack of aid entering Gaza and the U.S. government’s role in the humanitarian crisis.

“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,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement Thursday.“It also means cutting support for services — including schooling and health care — for over a million Palestinians in the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.”

“I am deeply frustrated and disappointed by this ban on funding UNRWA at a time when the humanitarian support it provides is so desperately needed.”

Lawmakers included the provision after Israel earlier this year accused a dozen UNRWA employees — 0.09% of the agency’s staff — of participating in the Oct. 7 attack. The accusation led to several major funders of UNRWA, including the U.S., to suspend their contributions. UNRWA immediately terminated the accused staff and has been cooperating with an investigation by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services.

Since then, the European Union’s top humanitarian official said Israel still has not provided evidence to back up its accusations. UNRWA has also since accused Israel of detaining and torturing some of its staff to coerce false confessions of being involved in the Oct. 7 attack. Australia, Canada, Sweden and the EU have since restored funding for UNRWA, but the U.S., UNRWA’s biggest donor, has continued to suspend funding.

Other aid organizations that are trying to provide food, water, medicine and shelter to those in Gaza also say that UNRWA is virtually the only agency that has the proper infrastructure to bring in and distribute the kind of aid that is needed in a territory where millions are displaced, starving, wounded and ill.

The U.N. and human rights advocates have warned that the lack of funding could exacerbate the massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In March, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told the U.N. General Assembly that he believes his agency is facing a deliberate campaign by Israel to undermine its operations and ultimately force the agency to dissolve.

“Tens of thousands of people are starving. UNRWA is trying to feed them, and the Israeli government and its allies like AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] spend much of their time lobbying to defund UNRWA, the major organization which is feeding starving people,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on Wednesday. “Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this Starvation Caucus, happy to cut funding for UNRWA, and make it harder to get aid to Palestinians in the midst of this crisis.”

The Biden administration has said the president would sign the spending bill but did not mention the proposed prohibition of funding UNRWA. The White House did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request or comment on whether President Joe Biden, who is facing increased domestic and international pressure to expand aid and demand a permanent cease-fire, opposes the provision or if he plans to lift his current funding suspension.

In addition to the UNRWA provision, Republicans said the proposed spending package “implements new conditions on any assistance to Gaza” and “requires unprecedented conditionality on funds to the United Nations, including new requirements on anti-Israel bias, transparency, and terrorism vetting for every U.N. entity and international organization funded in the bill.”

The House is expected to take up the proposal Friday. The package then would move to the upper chamber, where senators would have to agree on immediately taking it up to avoid a partial government shutdown. Such agreements usually include votes on proposed amendments to the bills in the package.

“I will vote no on this bill that bans aid to children in Gaza who are dying of hunger,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) posted on X (formerly Twitter). “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.”

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) said that after Congress passes the spending package, the House will focus on a bill that would provide aid to Ukraine and Israel. The Senate has already passed a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, but the speaker has declined to bring it up for a vote in the House.