AOC and progressives slam spending bill that halts funding for UNRWA as ‘unconscionable’

The US temporarily paused funding to UNRWA earlier this year pending a United Nations investigation

Eric Garcia
Washington, DC
,Katie Hawkinson
Thursday 21 March 2024 23:13 GMT
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Progressives slammed the bipartisan spending bill that would keep the government open for the rest of the year for its proposal to halt direct US funding for the primary humanitarian agency operating in Gaza until 2025.

The leaders of the Appropriations Committees on the House and Senate released the text for six spending bills to keep the government open for the rest of the fiscal year which ends on 30 September. But progressives immediately criticised the bills for cutting off aid to Palestinians amid a humanitarian crisis.

Progressive Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Independent that further halting direct funding to the organization would be “unconscionable.”

“It’s also not sound, not grounded in sound facts,” she said. “We have intelligence assessments that speak to this.”

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has been the main provider of food, water and shelter in Gaza since the war began on 7 October, when Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking another 250 people hostage. Since then, attacks by the Israel Defense Forces on Gaza have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Now, a new spending bill that could pass Congress in the coming days would stop US funds from going towards a “contribution, grant, or other payment” to UNRWA until March 2025.

UNRWA fell under heavy scrutiny after Israeli officials alleged that some staffers in Gaza participated in the 7 October attack by Hamas militants. Earlier this month, Israel claimed some 450 UNRWA employees were members of Gaza militant groups but provided no evidence, the Associated Press reports.

Displaced Palestinians wait to receive UNRWA aid in Rafah (REUTERS)

Due to these reports, in January President Joe Biden put a temporary pause on US funding to UNRWA pending the outcome of a United Nations (UN) investigation. That pause is ongoing.

Several countries declared they would halt funding in response, but many have already reversed their decision, including Australia, Sweden and Canada. The European Union also pledged to pay $54m to UNRWA earlier this month after the agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.

Fellow progressive Ro Khanna echoed Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s same concerns.

“It restricts funding for kids who are dying in Gaza. It’s unconscionable,” the congressman told The Independent.

Representative Delia Ramirez of Illinois told The Independent she would be briefed on the legislation but she worried about the consequences of restricting aid to UNRWRA.

“We should not be restricting, we should be restoring, I've been saying that on public record,” she said. “The idea that people are literally starving to death and we are contributing to that is a problem.”

On top of supporting those in Gaza, UNRWA also supports millions of Palestinian refugees across the Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank.

An UNRWA worker prepares to distribute aid (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Democrats like Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia oppose the provision on the grounds that UNRWA provides essential support outside of Gaza.

“Set aside Gaza for a second: UNRWA does really important work in Jordan and other countries where we don’t necessarily have others, so that in my view is a real weakness of the bill,” Mr Kaine told The Independent.

Others expressed concerns that no one could fill the gap that UNRWA would leave in Gaza.

“I don’t know that there’s another organization that can step in and do the job,” Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told The Independent.

Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who supports a ceasefire, has in the past defended UNRWA and criticised the provision on Thursday.

“I'm very disappointed in a time when UNRWA is the primary system for delivering aid to starving people that funding would be turned off,” he told The Independent.

However, Republican leadership has hailed the provision as positive. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson praised the move, echoing Israel’s claims.

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

Mike Johnson and other members of the GOP have long supported halting funding to UNRWA (Getty Images)

But even pro-Israel Democrats worry about cutting off spending for UNRWA. Senator Ben Cardin--the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is a major supporter of Israel--said it was “a mistake type of prohibition.”

“So I think we obviously have suspension in regards to Gaza,” Mr Cardin, who is Jewish, told The Independent. “The UNRWA operates in other countries besides Gaza.”

Halting UNRWA funding comes as part of a much larger $1.2 trillion spending bill just days ahead of the government shutdown deadline. The so-called minibus spending bill will fund the State Department; the Pentagon; the Department of Homeland Security; Congress; the Department of Health and Human Services; the Department of Education; financial services and the general government. If the bill passes, Congress will have finally completed the appropriations process for the current fiscal year following several failed spending bills and continuing resolutions.

Given Republican opposition to the spending bill and the razor-thin Republican majority, the legislation will likely be subjected to a suspension of the rules vote, which would require a two-thirds majority vote in the House. But if progressives oppose the spending bill, the legislation might not survive.

This bill would not be the first time the US has halted or cut funding to the UNRWA. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump cut all funding before President Joe Biden restored it in 2021.

Should the minibus pass, Mr Biden has already committed to signing it immediately.

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