Stop playing politics with Palestinian lives 

One wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but the next violent eruption in the Gaza Strip may be just around the corner. As most of Washington remains mired in its traditional August doldrums, yet another a potential crisis is brewing in the already isolated and impoverished Gaza Strip. For the past several months, $75 million in badly needed food assistance for Palestinians has been held up in Congress, not because of any bureaucratic or logistical impediments but for purely political reasons. Moreover, if the Biden administration does not act by the end of August, it will likely lead to a further deterioration in the already dire humanitarian conditions in Gaza — with potentially serious security implications for Jordan, Egypt and Israel.  

In its foreign aid appropriation FY2023, Congress directed the State Department to provide an additional $75 million to UNRWA, the UN agency that provides basic services to millions of Palestinian refugees, specifically for additional food assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. Kudos to Congress for recognizing the impact to Palestine refugees of the rising prices humanitarian agencies like UNRWA are confronting as a result of the war in Ukraine. Despite waiting five months, in early May, the State Department finally notified Congress of its intent to obligate the funds.  

More than three months later, however, those funds are still being held up in Congress—not by any committee or political party but by a single, solitary lawmaker: Idaho Sen. James Risch. As the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Risch has placed an indefinite hold on the money’s transfer to UNRWA. To be clear, the senator’s ability to put a “hold” on the funds has no legal authority but rather is a courtesy extended by the executive branch to the legislative branch. It does not supersede the legal obligation to release the funds as per Congress’s appropriation. In other words, the Biden administration could simply ignore the hold if it chose to do so. In the meantime, both sides continue to play politics with Palestinian lives.   

For his part, Risch has said that he will not release the funds until he receives assurances from the Biden administration that UNRWA is not aiding Palestinian militants or promoting antisemitism. However, these and other conditions are already requirements UNRWA must abide by in its framework agreement with the State Department. In other words, Risch is holding up essential food aid over things the State Department has already certified are happening. 

This is not the first time Risch has held up humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. In 2021, the senator placed a similar hold on $75 million in aid before eventually relenting to pressure from the administration and congressional Democrats. Moreover, Risch’s beef with UNRWA has deep political, if not ideological, roots. Indeed, Risch’s record suggests he is less interested in reforming UNRWA than in dismantling it while doing away with the issue of Palestinian refugees altogether. For example, Risch has introduced legislation aimed at defunding UNRWA as well as at redefining who may qualify as a Palestinian refugee by limiting its definition only to those who fled their homes in 1948 while explicitly excluding their children and other descendants. Even though refugees the world over have the same ability to pass on their refugee status to subsequent generations, Risch is in effect attempting to define the bulk of Palestinian refugees out of existence.  

The stakes are exceedingly high. International aid has been essential for Gaza’s population and its stability. Three out of four Palestinians in Gaza rely on food assistance from UNRWA and the World Food Program (WFP), while 40 percent of people in Gaza are severely food insecure. Moreover, the WFP recently announced that funding cuts require it to eliminate food assistance for 200,000 people in Gaza, or 60 percent of its beneficiaries in there. The United Nations five years ago predicted Gaza would be “uninhabitable” by 2020. A further reduction in food aid would only compound Gaza’s misery as well as fuel further violence and instability.   

Regardless of how one feels about UNRWA or who does or does not qualify as a refugee, denying thousands of already destitute families of vital food aid for purely political reasons seems unnecessarily cruel as well as reckless. 

Despite appeals from the State Department, UNRWA and several Arab governments, Risch shows no sign of budging. “The administration has all the authority they need to provide emergency food assistance to UNRWA,” observed a spokesperson for the senator, adding that Risch “will continue to hold them until his long-term concern about UNRWA are addressed.”  

On this, at least, Risch is correct. Biden does indeed have the authority he needs to disburse the funds over Risch’s objections. But this will require taking a stand and expending at least some political capital on an issue—the Palestinians—that has not been a political priority for the administration thus far.  

Meanwhile, time is running out. Failure to release the funds by Sept. 1 would set off a chain reaction of negative consequences, including a break in the Gaza food pipeline and the potential inability to pay salaries to UNRWA’s 28,000 education, health care and social services staff. In the event the funds are released after Sept. 1, UNRWA officials estimate it would take two to three months to restart its food program.  

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke movingly in New York about the increasing use of food aid, “as a weapon of war, for leverage, for political purposes in conflict after conflict.” Whether the administration will have the courage to practice what it preaches remains to be seen. 

The question now is whether the president will do the right thing and direct the funds to be disbursed anyway or simply cave to the whims of a single U.S. senator and his personal crusade against UNRWA. It’s hard to imagine this administration backing up any of its tough talk — say, with China or other adversaries — when it is reluctant to override the prerogatives of a single senator to block funding that has already been approved by both Congress and the administration. If nothing else, U.S. politicians should stop playing politics with Palestinian lives.  

Khaled Elgindy is senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute.

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