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Congress Continues UNRWA Funding Cut Until 2025, Enforcing Famine in Gaza

President Biden has said he will sign the $1.2 trillion spending bill immediately.

A man gestures near a pool of blood at an UNRWA warehouse and distribution centre in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, following an Israeli strike on March 13, 2024.

Congress has passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill that will continue a ban on funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) until 2025.

On Friday the legislation passed the House with a vote of 286 to 134 and the Senate with a vote of 74 to 24. President Joe Biden has already said he would sign the bill immediately if it was able advance through the two chambers.

Its passage comes amid warnings about a looming famine hitting Gaza. Earlier this week the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) put out a report predicting that northern Gaza could experience one by May. The IPC classifies the region as Phase 5 situation, which is the most catastrophic categorization.

“We’re talking about 1.1 million people,” Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian territory told ABC News. “If you compare to other contexts — at the peak of the famine in Yemen, for example — we had 150,000 people in Phase 5. Here, we’re talking about 1.1 million. So, it’s unprecedented.”

UNRWA provides life-saving aid to more than 2 million Palestinians in Gaza.

In January the State Department announced that it was temporarily pausing additional funding to the agency, after the Israeli government accused twelve of its employees of being involved in the October 7th Hamas attack. Israel has yet to publicly prove any of their claims.

The employees were fired, but last month UNRWA commissioner general Philippe Lazzarini admitted that they had been sacked without proof, saying the agency had implemented a “reverse due process.” A UN special commission is still investigating the matter.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who was one of just 23 House Democrats to vote against the bill, gave an impassioned floor speech on the issue.

“This is a mass starvation of people, engineered and orchestrated following the killing of another 30,000, 70 percent of whom were women and children killed. There is hardly a single hospital left. And this was all accomplished, much of this accomplished, with US resources and weapons,” said the congresswoman.

“If you want to know what an unfolding genocide looks like, open your eyes,” she continued. “It looks like the forced famine of 1.1 million innocents. It looks like thousands of children eating grass as their bodies consume themselves, while trucks of food are slowed and halted just miles away. It looks like good and decent people who do nothing, or too little, too late.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) also gave a House floor speech.”Israeli government has been intentionally starving the Palestinian people” she said, “..Members here — all of them — are now going to be contributing to the starvation of Palestinian families.”

“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,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in a statement. “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.”

The bill’s passage was denounced by human rights groups and activists.

“Democrats and Republicans used cutting UNRWA funding until 2025 as a bargaining chip the same way they use immigration to approach negotiations,” tweeted US Campaign for Palestinian Rights Policy Manager Mohammed Khader. “Each member that votes to advance this bill is allowing Israel to violate U.S. law and supports mass atrocities against Palestinians.”

“It’s unsurprising that the GOP is driving forward a ban on funding for UNRWA — the primary organization providing humanitarian aid to Gazans on the brink of famine — while the Israeli military massacres and starves Palestinian civilians in Gaza with U.S. financial and diplomatic backing,” said IfNotNow national spokesperson Eva Borgwardt in a statement. “And it’s unconscionable that so many Democrats are joining them.”

“Instead of banning funding for UNRWA, the US should restore its aid to Gaza and halt weapons transfers to the Israeli military.”

Israeli officials are predictably lauding the move.

“The historic ban on US funding to UNRWA that passed today with overwhelming bipartisan support, demonstrates what we knew all along: UNRWA is part of the problem and can not be part of the solution,” tweeted Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz. “UNRWA will not be a part of Gaza’s landscape in the aftermath of Hamas. Thousands of UNRWA employees are involved in Hamas terror activities and their facilities were used for terrorist purposes.”

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