Biden's UNRWA aid cut deepens cracks in US pro-Israel posture

Republicans double down on calls to permanently cut funding for UN Palestinian relief agency while Democrats toe a more careful line

Capitol Police officers remove a demonstrator during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing in Washington. Bloomberg
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Partisan lines were clear on Tuesday as Congress reacted to President Joe Biden's decision to halt US contributions to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

The Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee held a joint subcommittee hearing focused on “exposing” UNRWA's mission as well as its “failures”.

The hearing came after the US and other countries announced they would halt funding to UNRWA after Israel claimed 12 of the agency's employees were suspected of involvement in the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

UNRWA is a mainstay of humanitarian aid in the enclave and has been the main provider of food, water and shelter since the Israel-Gaza war began.

According to Republicans, the aid cut “was a long overdue response”.

“Going far beyond the revelations of last week, there has been massive and irrefutable evidence of UNRWA's … co-operation in Hamas' anti-Semitic, genocidal hate campaign,” said Republican Chris Smith.

During his remarks, Republican Brian Mast, the subcommittee's chairman, thanked former president Donald Trump – presumed Republican challenger to Mr Biden in November – for being the first to defund UNRWA.

But the cracks in Washington's historically rock-solid support for Israel have continued to deepen on the UNRWA decision, which came days after the International Court of Justice determined that allegations of Israel committing genocide in Gaza were “plausible”.

A small but growing group of Democrats have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and led congressional calls for a ceasefire since the eruption of the war.

Democrat Jason Crow told the committee that UNRWA's “functions must continue”, though he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations against it.

“We cannot stop the delivery of aid and the support of an organisation that is essential to the livelihood of about two million Palestinian people. And I will continue to be a vocal advocate to make sure that we figure out a way forward here.”

His tone was more measured than progressive members of his party, with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling the aid pause “unacceptable” and Senator Bernie Sanders demanding UNRWA funding be restored.

“We cannot allow millions to suffer because of the alleged actions of 12 people,” he said in a statement. “The US and other countries must restore funding to UNRWA.”

Frustration with Mr Biden and his administration's response to the conflict was made clear during the hearing when several pro-ceasefire demonstrators shouted down opening statements from the committee leadership.

Pro-Israel activists also in attendance confronted Capitol Police for not getting the ceasefire protesters out sooner, with some in the room laughing at accusations of a genocide against Palestinians.

Democratic witness Mara Rudman, former deputy envoy and chief of staff for the State Department's Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, gave a grim warning.

“If the funding does not resume, we have people who will be starving. And it's not just doctors, not the countries that have followed the United States, and I understand that. But there is not enough funding going into UNRWA to be able to feed people. It's that simple,” she said.

“In terms of what [UNRWA] is doing right now, there is no substitute and they are providing for the most basic needs of Palestinians.”

The Republican committee majority invited the group UN Watch, noted to have a pro-Israel stance, to testify and plead the case that Washington should never again fund the group.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, introduced a report from his organisation that contains evidence of a series of UNRWA Telegram messages using hateful rhetoric.

Mr Neuer described repeatedly alerting the UN to examples of UNRWA teachers and staff making anti-Semitic statements and being ignored.

The allegations against UNRWA's employees have in part vindicated pro-Israel leaders in Congress who have long looked to undermine the relief organisation, and Republicans have used this moment to ramp up efforts to permanently defund it and shut it down.

US Secretary of State interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters at Senate hearing – video

US Secretary of State interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters at Senate hearing

US Secretary of State interrupted by pro-Palestine protesters at Senate hearing

Mr Smith was among three Republican congressmen who on Monday introduced the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024", which would ban any “voluntary or involuntary” US contributions to the Palestinian relief organisation.

As recently as June, the House Foreign Affairs Committee hosted a hearing on “anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias in the UN, Palestinian Authority and NGO community”.

And at the end of October, weeks after Hamas's deadly October 7 attack on Israel, Republican senators introduced the “Stop Support for Hamas Act”.

Relatives of UNRWA staff members spoke earlier to The National on condition of anonymity about their concerns over the funding cuts.

“If the funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees stops, how will we live?” a Palestinian with connections to the agency told The National.

Nagham Mohanna and Mina Aldroubi contributed to this report

Updated: January 31, 2024, 10:17 AM