June 15, 2024

Republicans Block Food Aid To Gaza As Israeli Leader Visits Congress

As Israeli President Isaac Herzog gets red carpet treatment in Washington this week, two powerful Republican lawmakers are withholding $75 million in American aid from the poorest Palestinians.

The moves by Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) could fuel hunger and violence in Gaza, where millions of Palestinians struggle under Israel’s 15-year blockade, which humanitarian groups warn. Half a million children are at particular risk, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which administers the aid.

If the funding continues to be delayed, “the plight of the Palestinian refugees, who are already suffering great hardship, will be intensified to an unprecedented point of disaster,” he says. letter that 25 organizations — including Oxfam America, Refugees International and faith groups — sent last week to McCaul and Risch, who are the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively.

Lawmakers approved the food aid to the Palestinians in a bill they passed last year when Democrats controlled Congress, noting rising food and transportation costs. In May, the State Department told Capitol Hill that it planned to disburse the funds soon.

McCaul and Risch used their positions on the powerful committees to enact earmarks soon after, and McCaul put more than $400 million in United Nations funding on hold over Palestinian aid.

On Tuesday, a Risch representative put the onus on President Joe Biden to release the necessary funds and cast doubt on a resolution ahead of the September 1 deadline that UNRWA says is critical.

“The administration has all the authority they need to provide emergency food assistance to UNRWA,” Risch spokeswoman Suzanne Wrasse wrote in an email to HuffPost. “The funds they are requesting are outside of an emergency situation so Senator Risch will continue to withhold them until his long-term concerns about UNRWA are addressed.”

The Biden administration is not seeking new funding, but members of Congress who hold senior positions on committees can use their influence with government agencies to counter spending that has already been approved.

Riste has questioned UNRWA for years, saying that the United States must do more to verify that the agency is not promoting antisemitism or helping Palestinian militants.

A spokesperson for McCaul did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is leading a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

The dispute comes amid high-profile discussions on US-Israel ties. On WednesdayHerzog, the largely ceremonial head of state of Israel, will address a joint session of Congress to mark the 75th anniversary of the state of Israel and celebrate US-Israel relations.

But the contrast between US politicians’ reception of Herzog and their penchant for the Palestinians shows that America is far from achieving the more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many experts consider vital to achieve sustainable peace.

Republicans have taken a tougher line towards the Palestinians since former President Donald Trump cut off almost all aid and have taken additional steps avoided by former US presidents to build Palestinian faith in negotiations. Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel despite considerable controversy over its status and called Israeli settlements in the West Bank legal.

Republicans have also tried to score political points by suggesting that they are more supportive of Israel, a longtime ally of the United States, than Democrats, who they think are discriminatory towards the country and, therefore, anti-Semitic.

Although Biden tried to restore US relations with Palestine and advocated a two-state solution, he largely ignored calls from fellow democrats to challenge policies such as Israeli settlement expansion and military actions or to take steps for Palestinian independence to acknowledge.

It is unclear whether Biden or other US officials are raising the issue with Herzog or his staff during the Israeli president’s visit. Neither the State Department nor the Israeli embassy in Washington responded to requests for comment for this story.

But Monday provided a fresh sign of the president’s soft approach toward Israel: Despite Biden’s own expressed concerns about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu controversial attempt to consolidate his power by overhauling Israel’s judiciary, he invited Netanyahu to visit the US A date for the visit has not yet been set.

And on Tuesday, the ongoing political sensitivity to being seen as too tough on Israel was on display in the House of Representatives, which took time to vote on a resolution sure to pass saying the country is not racist. Republicans pushed the vote after Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) made a statement and then walked back calling Israel a “racist state.”

“This is basically the politics that play with the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.”

– Hannah Morris, director of government affairs at J Street

Amidst the political fury, supporters of aid to the Palestinians say it is a moral imperative. They argue that allowing aid to be influenced by partisan differences over America’s approach to the Palestinians would create unnecessary misery and worsen the overall situation on the ground by fueling discontent.

“This is basically the politics that play into the lives of Israelis and Palestinians,” said Hannah Morris, director of government affairs at the liberal American Jewish advocacy group J Street. “The Israeli government understands that this funding is critical to its own security.”

Although Israel is critical of UNRWA, the country has long acknowledged the need for aid in Gaza, where observers say the experience of living in an open-air prison effectively helps drive locals into the army of violent anti-Israel factions. The region has been largely cut off from the outside world since the armed organization Hamas, considered a terror group by the United States and its allies, took over in 2007. Israel allows the United Nations to bring aid into Gaza and he has repeatedly worked with Qatar, the gas-rich Persian Gulf nation, to secure additional funding.

Gaza already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, according to the UNand international aid meets most of the nutritional needs of 75% of the region’s population.

Humanitarian experts were already expecting the situation to worsen after the World Food Program’s May Notice that it was suspending aid to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of them in Gaza, because of its own funding constraints.

“You are looking, quite frankly, at a humanitarian disaster that affects regional stability” if US funding does not go through, said William Deere, director of UNRWA’s Washington office. “To people who purport to support Israel: Is Israel going to feed these people? Or is the plan of these two members to let people starve in Gaza?”

Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) speaks to reporters in the Senate subway after a vote in the Capitol on February 9, 2022.
Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) speaks to reporters in the Senate subway after a vote in the Capitol on February 9, 2022.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

UNRWA expects the continued holdout to force it into deficits by September, Deere said, hurting its ability to supply essential foodstuffs such as flour, rice, sugar, lentils and milk to 1.2 million Palestinians, nearly all of them in Gaza.

In 2021, Risk stop Biden plans to return aid to the Palestinians before making promises about how the money would be spent — including a promise that $20 million would go specifically to food aid.

Aid advocates hope the urgency of the situation will eventually convince the senator to accept similar assurances of vetting and use a different tack to push for change at UNRWA.

“There can always be a question of what’s best in the long term, but an immediate appointment without some kind of fundamental solution doesn’t address the problem,” Morris said.

Risch and McCaul’s team met with UNRWA about the issue, Deere told HuffPost.

“It is as apolitical as it can be: the funding is earmarked for food aid only,” he said. “It’s food for people who are already desperate.”

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