Hawkish Democrat Quietly Seeking To Extend U.S. Ban On U.N. Aid To Palestinians

One of the most aggressively pro-Israel Democrats in Congress is quietly trying to extend a yearlong ban on U.S. funding for the United Nations agency helping Palestinians ― circulating a message telling fellow members of Congress that they “have a shared responsibility to ensure that U.S. humanitarian assistance is used to foster an open and safe society and not propagate terrorism and further division.”

The previously unreportedgambit that hawkish Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) launched on Tuesday underscores how determined some hard-line Israel advocates remain to force a permanent shift in U.S. policy. Washington has historically been the biggest donor to the agency, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and for the next 11 months at least, there is no prospect of American funds going to UNRWA because of the prohibition that legislators passed in a government spending bill last month after Israel in January accused UNRWA staffers of participating in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that was led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The Biden administration had already halted American support to UNRWA, which amounted to up to $400 million annually, before the congressional vote over Israel’s allegations. Gottheimer wants to codify a ban on supporting UNRWA work in Gaza in legislation that is intended to fund the State Department through the 2025 fiscal year.

Citing a lack of evidence for Israel’s claims that UNRWA is responsible for terrorism and the worsening humanitarian conditions for Palestinians amid the U.S.-backed Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, several top donors have recently resumed their donations to the agency, including Japan, France, Australia, Canada, Finland, Sweden and the European Union.

The development comes as U.S. officials report that Gaza is experiencing a famine and say that American and other humanitarian assistance currently reaching its population of 2.3 million is deeply insufficient, according to an internal cable revealed by HuffPost earlier this week.

After publication, Gottheimer shared a comment with HuffPost via email: “It is a fact that UNRWA employees affiliated with Hamas, a terrorist organization, attacked innocent Israeli civilians on October 7 — not a dollar more of aid allocated for innocent Palestinians can end up in the hands of terrorists.”

A senior Democratic congressional aide expressed disdain for Gottheimer’s move, presaging likely resistance from much of the party.

Calling it an “inhumane and politicized crusade,” the aide told HuffPost: “Apparently for Gottheimer, it is not enough to simply temporarily pause U.S. funding to UNRWA as Palestinian civilians face famine ― even though credible reporting has shown many of the accusations used to base such funding cuts were founded on so-called ‘confessions’ obtained through torture, and the U.S.’s own [director of national intelligence] assessed Israel’s claims are exaggerated and based on dubious grounds.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that an American intelligence assessment was unable to substantiate Israeli statements that UNRWA had been infiltrated by Hamas while determining there was “low confidence” in reports that some of the agency’s staff did participate in the Oct. 7 attack.

Gottheimer and other ardent Israel supporters, chiefly Republicans, have long criticized UNRWA, claiming it fuels anti-Israel sentiment, while the majority of Democratic lawmakers have retorted that the agency is vital to regional stability and has shown openness to addressing outside concerns. In January, Gottheimer told the Jewish News Syndicate, “You’re going to see a bipartisan group of people say … that it’s time for UNRWA to disappear.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government have made similar comments about the U.N. body despite concerns among some Israeli officials and analysts that weakening or destroying the decades-old organization would fuel chaos, both in occupied Palestinian territories and in other countries where UNRWA aids Palestinian refugees, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

U.N. and independent investigations into Israel’s claims of an UNRWA role on Oct. 7 are ongoing. Immediately after Israel made its allegations, UNRWA fired nine workers who the Israelis said had participated in the attack.

UNRWA officials and Palestinian advocates say that a significant reason for the intense opposition to the agency is its symbolic importance in embodying the mass displacement of Palestinians amid the creation of Israel in 1948 and the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, which Israel does not acknowledge.

Notably, Gottheimer’s letter suggesting additions to the State Department funding bill also proposed halting U.S. support for any international organizations whose conduct “constitutes antisemitism” under a controversial definition crafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. Even considering that change is striking, and implementing it would be alarming, argued Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace think tank.

“Gottheimer’s text represents an unprecedented effort to make U.S. activities and relationships in the international arena, including those critical to U.S. national security, conditional on adherence to a hugely controversial definition of antisemitism, the clear focus of which is to suppress and punish criticism of Israel,” Friedman told HuffPost.

Final deliberations on Capitol Hill over the legislation for the next fiscal year and decisions on the future U.S. approach to UNRWA are unlikely to occur until after the presidential election in November.