Republicans Move to One-Up Biden and Permanently Defund UNRWA

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is moving forward next week with legislation to permanently defund UNRWA, or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, the primary vehicle for humanitarian aid in Gaza. 

The committee has publicly announced its vote schedule for Tuesday, February 6, listing 11 pieces of legislation to be considered. One of those is H.R. 7122, described on the agenda only as an act “to prohibit aid that will benefit Hamas, and for other purposes.”

Cross-checking H.R. 7122 at Congress.gov, however, brings up the bill itself, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican known as one of the more outspoken advocates for Israel. While the committee agenda may be opaque, the bill itself is clear. Called the “Stop Support for UNRWA Act,” the bill would do just that: bar the U.S. from ever making any voluntary or assessed contributions to the relief agency.

The bill is expected to pass committee and could be on the House floor as early as the week of February 12.

UNRWA works exclusively with Palestinian refugees and is among the largest employers in Gaza, operating schools and distributing aid. Top Israeli officials have long been hostile to UNRWA’s mandate, which they say gives Palestinians false hope they may one day be able to return to presently occupied territories. Israeli officials have also accused UNRWA schools of fomenting hostility toward Israel. “Our main goal in the war is to eliminate the threat and not to neutralize it and we know how to eliminate terrorists. It is more difficult for us with an idea. UNRWA is the source of the idea,” said Israeli Knesset member Noga Arbell on January 6. “And it will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA. And this destruction must begin immediately. … They must be abandoned. Or they must go to hell.”

The House bill builds on pressure already put on UNRWA by the Biden administration. Shortly after the International Court of Justice announcing its finding that South Africa had made a plausible case that Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, the U.S. announced it was pausing funding for UNRWA. Biden had previously restored funding to UNRWA after it was ended by the Trump administration.

The recent Biden move, according to State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, came after UNRWA itself had alerted the U.S. on Wednesday, January 24, that Israel had made allegations against 12 UNRWA staff in Gaza. UNRWA considered at least some of those allegations to be credible, taking action against the employees, Miller said. The U.S. announced its defunding on Friday, January 26, the same day Israel briefed the U.S. on the intelligence it collected.

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