UNRWA distribute flour to Palestinians in Gaza amidst food crisis due to ongoing Israeli attacks

Palestinians flock to receive flour distributed by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in Gaza, where there is a food crisis due to Israeli attacks in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza on March 03, 2024.

(Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Biden's Middle East Policy Trades Humanitarian Aid for Endless Warfare

The withdrawal of funding from UNRWA does not merely impact the agency's ability to deliver vital services but also contributes to the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization that feed into the cycle of violence.

On February 13, the U.S. Senate passed a $95.3 billion supplemental funding package that will fund weapons, war, and militarism in Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel. The bill would also further entrench the Biden Administration’s cruel and unnecessary decision to cut all funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by prohibiting humanitarian funds from going to the agency. UNRWA serves almost six million Palestinian refugees and is the main provider of aid in Gaza. Further restrictions on funding could result in a complete collapse of the already restricted humanitarian response and many more preventable deaths.

It is important to place Biden’s actions in a historical context. Weakening and dismantling UNRWA has been a long-standing strategy by successive Israeli administrations. In 2018, the Trump administration cut all funding to UNRWA, brandishing it as “irredeemably flawed,” just a year after Netenyahu had told Nikki Haley, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N, that UNRWA should be dismantled.

Attempts to obstruct UNRWA or fold it into the UN’s main refugee organization, the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are rooted in delegitimizing Palestinian refugees. Palestinians are the only refugee population in the world who were forcibly displaced as a result of a UN decision (the UN Partition Plan for Palestine), rather than actions by member states that are contrary to the principles of the United Nations. If UNRWA is dismantled, Palestinian refugees could lose this status and their rights, including their right of return.

UNRWA has touched the lives of Palestinians across many generations. My grandparents, who were forcibly displaced in 1948 from their home in West Jerusalem’s Katamon, relied crucially on the support of UNRWA. The agency not only supplied them with aid but also healthcare, educational opportunities for my uncles and aunt, and employment for my grandfather.

UNRWA was founded by the United Nations in 1949. But UNRWA was not the first relief effort in Gaza. In 1948, at the request of the United Nations, a Quaker organization called the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) began a program supporting Palestinian refugees who were violently displaced from their homes during the Nakba. During this period, AFSC's Gaza staff oversaw 10 refugee camps: Al Faluja, Bureij, Deir al-Baleh, Gaza, Jabalia, Maghazi, Nuseirat, Kahn Yunis, and Rafah. Recognizing that safeguarding human dignity goes beyond meeting immediate needs for food, shelter, and sanitation,

AFSC also built on the enduring legacy of Quaker education in Palestine which has been at work since the early 1800s. This legacy endures today – I am myself a proud graduate of the Ramallah Friends School and a lifelong Quaker.

In many respects, AFSC was a logical choice for this work. In 1947, AFSC and the British Friends Service Council received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Quakers worldwide for peacebuilding and humanitarian relief provided during and after the horrors of WWII. Such humanitarian efforts are deeply anchored in the Quaker ethos that reveres the inherent worth and dignity of every single human. In the same light, this ethos also compels us to oppose violence in all its manifestations, especially war.

The structures set up by AFSC in Gaza formed the basis of what became the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Today, UNRWA continues to support millions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and crucially in Gaza, where its services are now needed more than ever.

This January, the United States and several other countries cut funding to the agency after Israel alleged that 12 of UNRWA's 13,000 employees in Gaza were involved in the Oct. 7 attack. This cruel and unnecessary action at a time when people in Gaza are already facing famine and a collapse of the healthcare system shows that the Biden administration cares little for its commitment to humanitarian values, international law, and upholding of human rights.

The cutting of UNRWA funding is superimposed on the International Court of Justice's alarming ruling of credible evidence suggesting acts tantamount to genocide perpetrated by Israel in Gaza—a finding that received further validation from a federal court in California. Yet the Biden administration persists in its support to Israel, despite the potential implications of the U.S. in war crimes; the moral entanglements; and in blatant defiance of the U.S. public's overwhelming support for a ceasefire.

The Biden administration’s stance not only undermines the credibility of the United States, but also suggests a policy framework that is inconsistent and selectively applied. The scrutiny applied to UNRWA stands in stark contrast to the administration's apparent disregard for the litany of war crime allegations against Israel’s military. This move is particularly perplexing when considering the broader context of Biden’s presidential campaign, which was marked by promises to end "forever wars" in the Middle East and to uphold human rights and international law.

The significance of UNRWA’s work extends beyond immediate humanitarian relief; it plays a critical role in addressing the socioeconomic roots of violence in the region. The withdrawal of funding from UNRWA does not merely impact the agency's ability to deliver vital services but also contributes to the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization that feed into the cycle of violence.

Today, AFSC and Quakers across the U.S. are mobilizing to restore funding to UNRWA. The supplemental funding bill must be blocked. The United States should scale up humanitarian assistance for civilians in Gaza while demanding an immediate ceasefire, not take funds away from people in dire need.
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