Palestinians receive food in Rafah

Palestinians in Rafah, Gaza, gather to receive food distributed by aid organizations on March 15, 2024.

(Photo: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu via Getty Images)

'Starvation Caucus': US Lawmakers Push Spending Bill That Bars Funding for UNRWA

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders slammed members of Congress who are "happy to cut funding to UNRWA and make it harder to get aid to Palestinians in the midst of this crisis."

A $1.2 trillion government spending package that Congress is expected to pass by this weekend would prohibit U.S. funding for the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees for at least a year as Gazans living under Israeli siege face increasingly catastrophic hunger.

Buried at the end of 1,012 pages of legislative text unveiled early Thursday is a section that says funds appropriated under the bipartisan bill "may not be used for a contribution, grant, or other payment" to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which Gazans rely on for food and shelter. The U.S. is historically the largest donor to UNRWA.

The proposed freeze would last through March 2025. Many Republican lawmakers are calling for a permanent end to U.S. funding for the agency, which has faced shortfalls since the Biden administration and other Western governments paused donations in late January following Israel's unsubstantiated claims that UNRWA staffers took part in the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel.

Ahead of the release of legislative text, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) "touted" the UNRWA freeze to members, The Associated Pressreported Wednesday—days after a report warned that Gaza's entire population is facing "high levels of acute food insecurity" and "famine is imminent" in the northern part of the enclave.

Congressional progressives, meanwhile, have urged the Biden administration to immediately restore UNRWA funding.

In a floor speech on Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) castigated lawmakers and others backing UNRWA cuts, calling them members of a "starvation caucus."

"Tens of thousands of people are starving," said Sanders. "UNRWA is trying to feed them. And the Israeli government and its allies like AIPAC spend much of their time lobbying to defund UNRWA, the major organization which is feeding starving people."

"Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this starvation caucus, happy to cut funding to UNRWA and make it harder to get aid to Palestinians in the midst of this crisis," Sanders added.

Last week, The American Prospectobtained documents showing that AIPAC is pushing lawmakers to support the total abolition of UNRWA, which has coordinated most humanitarian aid efforts in Gaza amid Israel's latest assault on the territory.

For months, the Israeli government has deliberately obstructed ground-based aid deliveries to Gaza, subjecting shipments to arbitrary and complicated inspection processes and rejecting entire vehicles over items such as scissors in child medical kits.

Israel's blockade has resulted in the rapid spread of malnutrition across the Gaza Strip. Dozens of people, including children, have starved to death in recent weeks.

Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA's commissioner-general, said in an interview Wednesday that it is "a stain on our collective humanity that such a situation is artificially unfolding under our eyes."

"Food should not be used as a weapon of war," he added.

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