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25 Senate Democrats push Biden, Israel to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza

The lawmakers urged that aid to UNRWA be resumed as soon as possible once an investigation is complete, in addition to a slew of other steps

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) (C), speaks while flanked by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) (2L), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) (L), and Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) (R), after attending a briefing with administration officials about the situation with Iran, at the U.S. Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Days after the administration paused aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) over allegations that its employees participated in the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, 25 Senate Democrats urged the administration to work with Israel to increase humanitarian aid access to Gaza, as well as restore aid to UNRWA as soon as is appropriate.

The letter to President Joe Biden, led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), argues that humanitarian assistance entering Gaza is vastly insufficient “despite no evidence of Hamas theft or diversion of humanitarian assistance provided via the United Nations or international non-governmental organizations.”

Despite denials from U.N. officials of any theft, news organizations have shared video appearing to show humanitarian aid trucks being seized and looted by gunmen believed to be associated with Hamas, and the IDF has found UNRWA-labeled supplies in Hamas facilities. UNRWA itself said in October that an UNRWA facility had been raided by Hamas, before subsequently denying such claims.

Israeli intelligence has reportedly assessed that Hamas has stolen more than $1 million in UNRWA supplies since Oct. 7, and that 10% of UNRWA’s employees are Hamas members. 

While describing the allegations regarding employees’ involvement in Oct. 7 as “extremely troubling,” the lawmakers called UNRWA “indispensable” and noted that it has more than 13,000 employees.

“Moving forward, there must be a swift and thorough investigation to ensure accountability so that the resumption of U.S. assistance through UNRWA, when appropriate, remains possible,” the lawmakers continued.

The letter asks the administration to “work with Israeli officials” to reopen a third border crossing into Gaza at Erez; “streamline the convoluted inspections process” for aid moving into Gaza; establish a “clear, enforceable deconfliction process” between Israel and humanitarian aid organizations; increase capacity at the Kerem Shalom crossing; allow commercial goods to move into Gaza; open additional supply routes including through Jordan, the West Bank, Ashdod and the sea; increase U.S. military support of aid efforts; and implement more and longer humanitarian pauses.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Angus King (I-ME), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tina Smith (D-MN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).

The signatories include both frequent critics of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians as well as some stalwart allies of the Jewish state on Capitol Hill. Casey and Baldwin both face tight reelection races in 2024. Coons, a co-organizer of the letter, is a close Biden ally.

Separately, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the vice chairs of the Intelligence and Appropriations committees, called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to immediately dismiss UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini, accusing him of defending staff involvement in terrorism and criticizing countries that have withdrawn funding.

“He has never taken proactive steps to root out antisemitism from within the organization nor has he held the significant number of pro-terrorist employees, who still remain on the payroll of UNRWA, accountable for their hate,” the senators said.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on Friday that he plans to introduce an amendment to the Israel aid bill to remove support for offensive weapons for Israel, while preserving funding for defensive systems like Iron Dome.

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