JPOST: US House Foreign Affairs Committee displays partisan divide over UNRWA funding

NEW YORK - Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are at odds over handling the immediate future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency as the threat of starvation increasingly looms over Gaza.

UNRWA is the main provider of basic humanitarian needs like food, medicine, and education in the Gaza Strip.

The US, the agency's largest donor, pledged its support with a $153.7 million contribution to the agency in June 2023, UNRWA said in a statement.

According to the State Department, the US has provided $121 million to UNRWA since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

Republican committee members slammed the Biden administration's support for the agency at a hearing Tuesday called "UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency's Mission and Failures," and overwhelmingly called for the dissolution of UNRWA.

Demonstrators were seen and heard throughout the hearing. Some wore shirts supporting Israel and calling for the release of the hostages, others wore shirts in support of Gaza and held up their hands symbolically painted red.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the Israel Allies Caucus, described Biden's decision to temporarily suspend UNRWA funding as reports surfaced of agency staff member's involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel as a "long overdue response."

"Going far beyond the revelations of last week, however, there has been massive and irrefutable evidence of UNRWA's extensive complicity and cooperation in Hamas' antisemitic, genocidal hate campaign," Smith said.

On Monday, Smith introduced legislation aimed at curbing all US funding for UNRWA.

The "Stop Support for UNRWA Act of 2024" is cosponsored by Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), and would prohibit the US Government from making any voluntary or involuntary contributions to UNRWA or to the regular budget of the UN for the support of UNRWA, according to a release from Smith's office.

"Let me be clear that we are examining UNRWA because the agency directly and indirectly supported Hamas and other terrorist organizations in multiple, different ways," Mast said at Tuesday's hearing.

Politicians divided on UNRWA funding

Both Smith and Mast praised former President Donald Trump for his administration's decision to halt UNRWA funding.

Republican members focused heavily on UNRWA's schools and curriculum, which they said teaches antisemitism and hate for Israel. Republican members called on witnesses from watchdog groups that study the UN, UNRWA, and their practices.

Republican's witness Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the nonpartisan think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, described UNRWA as a "horror show that has decades in the making, co-produced by the United States taxpayer."

"Terrorism support and subsidy for UNRWA is a feature, not a bug," Goldberg said. "The organization is built from its core mission, its mandate, to indoctrinate generation after generation to hate Jews and to destroy Israel."

While Republican and Democratic members mostly agree that UNRWA needs either reformation or replacement, they disagree over how the immediate humanitarian crisis should be addressed.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) cited his experience as a combat veteran as a factor in his support for continuing aiding Gazans.

"The complexity of this situation cannot be overstated. From my experience in combat zones, and my understanding of our nation's 20 years of war in the Middle East, have made it clear to me that conditions in which people are starving, fearful or hopeless do not breed peace, and they will not bring security to Israel or to the broader region," Crow said. "People's basic needs must be met."

Crow said he has deep concerns about the security impact and moral implications if funding is shifted or halted.

Crow also said the actions of the 12 UNRWA staff members involved in Oct. 7 should not speak for the entire organization.

"It is possible to acknowledge the life saving nature of assistance that UNRWA provides and the importance of ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches the people of Gaza without diversion or misuse by Hamas or other nefarious actors," Crow said.

"This is not to understate the very real challenges and concerns about the integrity of UNRWA that had been raised by my colleagues and others, and the need for substantial reform or to find a successor organization or to fulfill the functions," he added.

The Democrat's witness, University of Virginia professor Mara Rudman, is a former deputy envoy and chief of staff for the Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace at the State Department, and called for the continuation of UNRWA funding as the UN's investigation continues. Rudman said this is imperative for US and Israeli security.

Rudman said the issue of UNRWA's curriculum can only be addressed once Gazan's basic needs are met.

"Aid must resume to under at the same time though as the assessment is being carried out. The United States, Israel, the world cannot afford the risk of famine taking root in Gaza," Rudman said. "That problem will not stay in Gaza, it is very directly threatening to the security and stability of Israel and the region, and thus the United States."

Rudman argued that responsibility for the services UNRWA provides cannot be transferred to other organizations, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or the World Food Programme, in enough time before Gaza is expected to face famine in a matter of weeks.

Goldberg hotly contested this point.

"This isn't the first time we've had a conflict in the world where we had to move quick funding for humanitarian support. The UN moves in our direction, UN agencies move at our direction. And the money, follow the money into conflict," Goldberg said. "We move very quickly when we want to to set up relief for people in need when there is a crisis in the world. We have done that for decades. There are organizations that exist."

The more than two hour hearing ended without conclusive actions planned.

Mast said Republicans will announce further legislation in the coming days to prevent additional UNRWA funding.

On Monday, Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) introduced the "Determining Excessive Funding for the United Nations for Dereliction (DEFUND) Act" which would require the State Department to rank (UN) agencies on how vital US involvement is to the country's interests, according to a statement on Curtis' website.

On Oct. 31, Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) introduced legislation called the "Stop Support for Hamas Act" which would completely cut off US funding for UNRWA.

Earlier Tuesday, the State Department indicated its decision to resume funding is contingent on the findings of the UN investigation as well as UNRWA's willingness to accept responsibility and implement measures to ensure its staff are not involved with Hamas terrorist efforts.

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