Democrats split over UNRWA’s future ahead of public hearing

Some Democrats expressed reservations about the administration’s decision to cut off aid, while others open to cutting it off entirely

Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza, Thomas White (not seen) visits a UNRWA school on the second day of 2023-2024 education season in Gaza City, Gaza on August 27, 2023.

House Democrats appeared split over the future of U.S. support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N.’s Palestinian aid agency, on the eve of a Tuesday House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the agency’s chronic issues, including its ties to terrorism.

The hearing was scheduled prior to the recent revelation that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel — which led the Biden administration to suspend aid to UNRWA. It also comes after the Wall Street Journal’s report on Monday that around 10% of  UNRWA employees are affiliated with Islamist terrorist and militant groups and half have family members who are affiliated with terror groups. Some Democrats expressed concerns about the administration’s move, while others indicated they want to see the U.N. agency overhauled or replaced.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), the ranking member of the HFAC subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability, which is co-hosting Tuesday’s hearing, told Jewish Insider that the administration’s decision to suspend aid to UNRWA is complex and indicated that he has some reservations. Crow has been critical of Israel’s conduct of its operations in Gaza.

“We obviously need to be vigorous in responding to the allegations and making sure that we’re not supporting terrorism,” Crow said, “but at the same time, there’s a very real human catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. The issue of pausing aid and making the situation worse on the ground is one that I take really seriously.”

Asked about the WSJ report, Crow said that the committee needs to examine the options for facilitating humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. 

“I have very real concerns about the historic issues that we’ve seen with UNRWA. But at the same time, the mission of UNRWA, which is to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, is a mission that we can’t allow to fail,” Crow said. “The question is, how do we accomplish that mission and get aid to the Palestinian people, while [doing] so in a manner that doesn’t support Hamas and terrorism. That is a very challenging question.”

The emerging consensus from the far left generally seems to outright oppose the administration’s aid cutoff. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called the decision “unacceptable,” and called for aid to be reinstated “immediately.”

“Among an organization of 13,000 UN aid workers, risking the starvation of millions over grave allegations of 12 is indefensible,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Moderate pro-Israel Democrats favor cracking down on the U.N. agency, and are open to cutting off aid permanently — more in line with the Republican position on the issue.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) told JI the administration should “not even reconsider funding” until the war is over and the rebuilding process — particularly of the agency’s education system for Palestinians — begins in Gaza.

Moskowitz said he supports continued humanitarian support to Gaza, but “giving money to a group that turned out to be part of Hamas and is educating its youth to hate Jews is not something that U.S. taxpayer money should be going to.” He said the U.S. should work with Egypt and Israel to develop an alternative system for distributing aid.

He also said that the UNRWA revelations “[make] me question the current leadership at the U.N. and what other programs need to be defunded.”

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) told JI he has believed “for a while” that UNRWA cannot be reformed, and that there are better ways to distribute aid and provide services to the Palestinians.

“UNRWA’s been around for 75 years. There’s no reason to have it separate from the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees,” Schneider said. “We need a group that can be held to account, that is responsible not just to the people it’s supposed to serve, but the rest of the countries that are standing behind it.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), who has led legislation pushing for greater scrutiny of UNRWA’s educational curricula, told JI that UNRWA’s promotion of terrorism in its curricula for decades “shows that UNRWA leadership is Hamas-flavored.” He said he’d like to see U.S. aid distributed through an alternative mechanism.

And Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is expected to call on the U.N. secretary-general and the head of UNRWA to resign over the body’s response to Oct. 7 and the subsequent reports, and will urge the creation of a more stringent mechanism to oversee UNRWA’s future operations, as well as an overhaul of UNRWA leadership.

Republicans are generally united around cutting off future aid to the U.N. agency.

Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), who chairs the Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee, introduced a bill on Monday to permanently end U.S. funding to UNRWA and seek its dissolution, transferring its responsibilities to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — the latest in a host of efforts by Republicans to defund the agency. 

The possibility of dissolving UNRWA and transferring its responsibilities to other agencies like the High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme is likely to be a frequent topic of discussion at Tuesday’s hearing.

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