President Biden has asked Congress to approve $9 billion in urgent assistance for the world’s humanitarian crises and is also pushing at least $100 million in aid for the Palestinians from existing federal funds. But that $9 billion — partially intended to replenish UNRWA’s dwindling supplies — appears at risk of falling out of a bipartisan Senate deal aimed at funding the government and providing military assistance to Israel. Senate Democrats are already struggling to convince their GOP counterparts to support aid to Ukraine, which they see as a higher priority. Discussions on the humanitarian assistance are in some trouble, too, as some Republicans object.
The House passed its own bill to send $14 billion in aid to Israel earlier this month, but it didn’t include any humanitarian money at all. And on Saturday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) unveiled a plan to fund the U.S. government that also excludes humanitarian aid, though its prospect for passage remains unclear.
The unfolding fight could shape the U.S. response to the conflict and undermine the humanitarian response to the war. Some Republicans claim that Hamas used stolen UNRWA aid to carry out its massacre of around 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7 — charges that international aid groups and White House officials adamantly deny.
Many congressional Republicans have complained about UNRWA for years, but have stepped up those criticisms in the wake of the Hamas attack.
“I will not vote for a bill that includes UNRWA money, period,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), one of the leaders of the GOP effort to strip funding for the organization. “There’s no way to prevent it from getting to Hamas. These people have American hostages.”
Asked if he would support any form of humanitarian relief for Gaza, Scott said: “I wouldn’t … You can’t guarantee it will get there.”
Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said he would vote against any efforts to give more money to UNRWA. Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the United Nations “unbridled antisemitism” on Wednesday and slammed UNRWA.
“I have grave concerns about how we’ve been expending humanitarian aid in Gaza,” Ricketts said, pointing to allegations that UNRWA members celebrated the attack on Israel. “I don’t see a need for it right now, as long as the war is going on.”
In a statement, the White House said there are no known instances of U.S. aid for UNRWA being diverted to Hamas or any other sanctioned group in Gaza or the West Bank in recent years. The single biggest donor to UNRWA, the U.S. government is providing more than $371 million to the aid group this year and has donated more than $1 billion since 2021. The Trump administration suspended funding for the group in 2018, but Biden reversed that decision shortly after taking office.
UNRWA is clamoring for more help right now, and had been cutting services even before the war began. More than any other organization, UNRWA is widely seen as indispensable for the distribution of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies in Gaza — with needs in the territory soaring in recent weeks. The agency also works in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
In addition to providing food to more than 1 million Gazans, officials say the organization is also currently providing shelter to nearly 700,000 people at its 149 facilities. The agency is also enduring a direct toll itself; UNRWA reports more than 100 members of its staff members have been killed since Israeli airstrikes began last month, shortly after Hamas attacked, the largest number of U.N. relief workers killed in such a short period of conflict. An airstrike struck an UNRWA facility in Gaza City on Wednesday.
The rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground has only raised the need for humanitarian support. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini on Thursday asked global leaders to contribute $481 million to address “colossal” humanitarian needs that “grow by the hour,” adding she had met with children without bread or water.
“Many of the bodies are trapped under the rubble for so long are disintegrating, and now stray dogs are eating body parts and carrying diseases outside the rubble,” said Raed M. Sharif, an international development expert in Canada who’s been in communication with his brother, who is currently sheltering at an UNRWA site in north Gaza along with his wife and four children, aged 13, 12, 11 and 8. “UNRWA is the only organization right now that is able to provide lifesaving support in that part of Gaza.”
The White House statement said the State Department has “rigorous oversight” over UNRWA, including anti-terrorism certifications and routine third party auditing.
“For UNRWA not to be able to function in Gaza would be devastating under normal circumstances, but to do so now would be exponentially worse. There are no words to describe how horrible it would be,” said Yousef Munayyer, former executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “This is just nut-job stuff from Republicans that is absolutely not true and cruel. You want to take food out of the mouths of refugee children? What is wrong with you?”
But conservatives and some foreign policy groups have long highlighted what they say are links between the UNRWA and Hamas.
During the Oct. 7 attack, the Israeli Defense Force has said, some Hamas fighters used United Nations aid medical kits. At least a half-dozen of the U.N.’s 13,000 workers in Gaza also endorsed the assault on Facebook and other social media platforms, according to U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group. The Associated Press also reported in 2017 that an UNRWA staffer was suspended after being elected to Hamas’s political bureau. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, criticized the relief agency in remarks Friday.
“UNRWA officials aren’t just complicit — they are active participants in Hamas’ terror, courtesy of the American taxpayer,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said in a statement.
Some Republican senators have struck a more moderate tone, saying that they support humanitarian aid in theory as long as it doesn’t benefit Hamas.
“If we can find a path forward with Israel’s agreement that would not allow Hamas to get that aid, I think Americans have always been generous and they can’t stand to see people suffering,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said. Still, he added, “the United Nations may be one tool to be used, but not without clear evidence that they have safeguards in place so Hamas gets nothing.”
Yet if UNRWA is ruled out as a vehicle, it is unclear how the aid could reach Gaza.
Established in 1949 following the Arab-Israeli War when Israel declared independence, the U.N. agency has been responsible for ensuring the aid delivered on trucks that entered Gaza through the Rafah Crossing with Egypt reached their final destinations, shipping the goods and storing them in UNRWA warehouses.
Already before the war, the group was responsible for transporting food for 1.2 million refugees in Gaza, importing 60 percent of all food to the territory and educating more than 330,000 children. About 2/3 of Gaza’s population are refugees or descendants of refugees displaced or forced out of their homes after Israel was established, adding personal stakes to fears among many Gazans now that the current war will leave them permanently displaced again in what Palestinians are already calling a “second Nakba.”
Even some experts convinced that Hamas is taking from UNRWA believe the U.S. government should continue to fund the organization.
“If Hamas makes a little bit of money, and steals a little bit, from the humanitarian aid, but the majority of it goes to people who need it — then that’s the cost of keeping people alive,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Jeanette and Eli Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a foreign policy think tank. “I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest for innocent Palestinians civilians — who have no agency with regard to Hamas — to have them suffer more than they already are.”