US Congress wants to close UNRWA down, top senator says

Remarks come after US Congress passed a budget that defunds Palestinian refugee agency through 2025

Senator Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in 2022. Reuters
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The top Republican foreign affairs senator vowed on Wednesday that the US Congress would work to permanently close UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinians.

“We need to put UNRWA out of business,” Jim Risch, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Samantha Power, who leads the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“And I've got to tell you, that is the majority view in Congress.”

Republican anti-UNRWA efforts were reinvigorated on Capitol Hill after Israel claimed that a dozen of the relief organisation's employees had taken part in the October 7 Hamas attacks that triggered the war in Gaza.

Congress recently passed a budget with bipartisan support that solidified President Joe Biden's hold on US contributions to UNRWA until at least 2025.

That halt on funding from Washington, UNRWA's top donor, came despite warnings from the body that such a cut would create “a huge gap” in the agency's support system amid an Israeli siege that has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and has pushed much of Gaza to the brink of famine.

Mr Risch said he “really believes Congress is going to continue down that line”.

The remarks came during a committee hearing during which Ms Power was questioned over the USAID budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 – which includes about $10.3 billion for global humanitarian assistance, with $6.3 billion in USAID fully and partially managed accounts.

USAID does not directly fund UNRWA. Contributions for the relief agency go through the State Department.

Ms Power noted that “there is no ready substitute” for UNRWA.

“Most [donors] have resumed funding because of the indispensability of the services and because of the view, that notwithstanding, again, very, very problematic allegations against specific individuals in Gaza, that those allegations do not extend across UNRWA funding across the region,” she added.

Mr Risch said, however, that a large portion of Washington does not agree.

“If UNRWA can't do it, too bad, I'm out. I've had it with UNRWA and I think a lot of my colleagues are in the same position,” he told Ms Power.

Republicans in the House of Representatives recently introduced the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024”, which, if passed, would ban any “voluntary or involuntary” US contributions to the Palestinian relief organisation and “to any successor or related entity, or to the regular budget of the United Nations for the support of UNRWA or a successor entity”.

Ms Power also said it was "credible" to assess that famine is already occurring in parts of Gaza. When asked whether famine was already occurring in the enclave, she said "yes".

During the hearing, Ms Power also issued a warning to Republicans who are stalling the passing of funding for an increasingly desperate Ukraine, as time runs out on its bid to secure more resources in its war against Russia's invasion.

“There are going to be catastrophic humanitarian effects to not bring in more resources to bear,” she said.

Ms Power argued that Washington's past support for Kyiv has generated benefits for the whole world, including that “Ukraine's grain exports now are very near their prewar export levels”.

“I feel in light of the debate, particularly in the need to get the supplemental across the finish line … That is attributable to the courage and the ingenuity of Ukrainians. But it is also attributed to the decisions made up here to provide USAID with the resources to support the agricultural sector,” she told the committee.

“Global food prices of course are related to what happens in Ukraine on those farms.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson was supposed to take up legislation that would clear $60 billion in Ukraine aid for a vote when the chamber returned from spring break this week, but indicated he would again delay any the vote amid continued backlash from conservative hardliners.

Updated: April 11, 2024, 5:19 PM