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U.S. Senate Passes Bill to Defund UNRWA

know your facts Feb 14, 2024
US Capitol building by lunamarina via

The United States Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would permanently defund the primary humanitarian aid group for Palestinians in Gaza and beyond, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which aid groups say will decimate humanitarian efforts in Gaza. The bill passed just hours after Israel began an assault on the city of Rafah, a designated safe zone, and one of the last “safe” places in Gaza. The bill also provides $14 billion (including $10 billion in unrestricted aid) to Israel to continue its genocidal assault on Palestinians and grants the President unprecedented authority to allocate arms funding to Israel without seeking Congressional approval. The bill provides $60 billion in aid to Ukraine as well as aid for Taiwan and billions to humanitarian aid in response to world crises.

Most disappointing is that only two Democrats and one independent voted no on this bill – Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Peter Welch (D-VT). Twenty-two Republicans joined the Democrats in passing it, 70-29.


Defunding UNRWA

The decision to defund UNRWA, which has been providing humanitarian aid and support to Palestinian refugees since its establishment in 1949, comes after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made its initial ruling on South Africa’s allegations that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians. The ICJ ruled on January 26th as part of its interim order that Israel must:

  • “ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit [genocide];”
  • “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip;” and
  • “take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.”

While many were disappointed that the ICJ didn’t call for an immediate ceasefire, this was an interim decision in a case that could take years. The order called for specific actions from Israel, not just ceasing violence, and required a report from Israel after 30 days to explain what actions the nation has taken. Bill Burke-White, professor of law at Penn Carey Law and the founding director of Perry World House, explains how the ICJ works and what the interim decision means here.

Immediately after the ruling, Israel accused 12 UNRWA aid workers of being a part of the October 7 attack which killed 1200 people.  According to the dossier, 10 of the 12 participated directly in the deadly assault on Israeli territory where 240 hostages were taken, and two others were called to assist. Israel also claimed to have evidence that UNRWA employed nearly 200 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. UNRWA employes over 30,000 people. It’s the largest humanitarian aid agency in Gaza with 3,000 of its core staff out of 13,000 in Gaza continuing to work in harms way.

That same day, January 26, several nations, including the United States and Canada, immediately announced that they were suspending funds to UNRWA, and by the January 28, at least nine nations had made similar announcements of suspending or reviewing their donations, endangering more than half the organization’s funding and millions of refugees. To many, it felt like a planned response to the ICJ not ruling in Israel’s favor.



The United Nations fired nine of the 12 staff members on January 27 and expressed shock that Western nations would cut funding to the agency so quickly and in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, where millions are displaced, lacking shelter, access to clean water, and already facing starvation.

By February 8, 16 nations had suspended funding, pending a UN investigation into UNRWA which is expected to take weeks. According to UNRWA, current funding will only last a few weeks. Suspending contributions to UNRWA will leave millions of Palestinian refugees without access to essential services such as healthcare and food assistance in Gaza as well as education in places where they have the capacity to teach. Cutting funds permanently would do untold damage to the existence of the Palestinian people.


Authority on Arms Funding

Another controversial aspect of the bill is the provision waiving the requirement for the executive branch to seek Congressional approval for arms funding for Israel. Decisions regarding military aid have been subject to Congressional approval, as part of the system of checks and balances within the U.S. government. According to the Associated Press, at least four administrations have used this executive privilege of emergency funding since 1979. President Biden’s administration has supplied emergency arms to Israel twice this past December without Congressional approval. Waiving the provision indicates to me that the senate expects it to happen again and instead of looking weak for not pushing back, they are giving permission before it happens again. 


My Thoughts

This bill is a mix of some good and necessary things along with some really terrible ideas that are designed to hurt the most vulnerable populations. Amendments were not allowed. Several senators gave impassioned speeches about starving Palestinian children and still voted yes.

Some things are non-negotiable. Permanently defunding the foremost humanitarian aid organization to Palestinians in Gaza without substantiating the claims made by Israel is one of those things that should never happen. Funding arms to Israel and defunding food and medicine to Palestinian civilians being driven from their homes is a level of evil I hoped I wouldn’t see from my government. The fact that they are tied together in one bill is sickening.

I wish I could see a day where each item to be voted on could stand alone and our representatives would vote based on verified facts, conscience, and compassion with consideration and input from the people who voted them into office. I’ve already let my senators know that I’m disappointed with their vote.

The good thing is that this bill also has to pass the House of Representatives and they haven’t been able to get their own version of the bill to the floor for a vote. So until the House can get it together and both the House and Senate can agree on one version of the bill, it can’t go to Biden for a signature or veto. I’m hoping it stalls, but that’s not a plan.


What You Can Do

I’m still using 5 Calls to contact my legislators. It’s easy. Download the app, choose an issue you care about, and enter your zipcode to find your representatives. Read a short script that you can recite or edit to leave a message for your representatives and call directly from the app! It makes it easy on days when you can’t get your words together or you don’t know where to put your focus. Just choose one or more topics and share your opinions.

According to 5 Calls, calling is the best way to make your voice heard. Mail and email have to be read and sorted. Calls go straight to a staffer and are more likely to be shared with your representatives before they make their opinion public.

  • Calling in support gives them stories to share about why they are taking a stand.
  • Calling to oppose lets them know how many of their constituents disagree.
  • If you don’t know their stance, it’s the perfect time to give your opinion!

So call as often as possible. It only takes a few minutes.

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