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US fumes at Israel over difficulty in getting relief to Gaza

The strike that killed a group of aid workers in Gaza puts in stark relief the difficulties the U.S. faces in delivering relief to an intensifying humanitarian crisis, especially as it follows the cutoff of American funding to the main UN Palestinian agency.

The Biden administration has shown no sign it’s considering conditioning military aid to Israel as a consequence. But Democrats — including the president — are increasingly blaming Israel for the crisis surrounding aid deliveries. And the attack is straining U.S. support for Israel’s military operations, following the U.S. abstention to a U.N. security council resolution demanding a cease-fire.

“Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians,” President Biden said in a statement late Tuesday evening.

“Israel has also not done enough to protect civilians. The United States has repeatedly urged Israel to deconflict their military operations against Hamas with humanitarian operations, in order to avoid civilian casualties.”

WCK said it was suspending operations following the deadly strike, withdrawing a key humanitarian group that lawmakers had hoped could take on the work traditionally carried out by the controversial U.N. Palestinian relief organization (UNRWA).

The U.S. had stopped funding UNRWA following allegations that 12 of its members participated in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. That followed decades of criticism against the organization and allegations of ties to Hamas.

The administration’s block on funding for UNRWA weighs heavily on Democrats, who acknowledge that the organization is deeply problematic, but also one of the best placed aid organizations to help relieve suffering. 

“I’m very concerned, because UNRWA has a unique role it plays in getting aid to various people around the world and you can’t revamp or replace it, given the crisis that was taking place all over the place. So it’s concerning,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill before the House left town in late March. 

His comments came just before Congress voted to block funding to UNRWA through the rest of the year as part of a sweeping bipartisan legislative package funding swaths of the government into fall.

Democrats fumed over the concession to Republicans, which forced some to choose between voting against an extended pause on U.S. funding to UNRWA or for a partial government shutdown. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in comments to The Hill shortly after voting “no” on the measure, cited the cut as the main reason for his opposition to the overall funding deal.

It “means that hundreds of thousands of starving children are not going to be able to get the food that they need, and I think that’s simply outrageous,” he told The Hill.

Republicans have been united in efforts to defund UNRWA completely, however, with a bill by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) blocking all funds for UNRWA advancing out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Feb. 6.

Since 1950, the U.S. has put more than $7 billion toward funding for the agency, making it the office’s biggest financial contributor, according to the Congressional Research Service. With thousands of employees, UNRWA is one of the U.N.’s biggest programs and the largest humanitarian organization in Gaza. 

“UNRWA is the lifeline of hope of services for millions of Palestinians in the region, including in Gaza,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General, said earlier this month. “And currently it’s the backbone, the spine, the arms and the legs of our humanitarian operation there.”

The U.N. has said the goal is to have 500 trucks of aid going into Gaza per day, an amount the U.S. supports. 

Last month, Dujarric cited UNRWA’s statistics that an average 159 trucks “crossed into Gaza per day,” with the highest amount seen March 28, “when 264 trucks entered Gaza via the Kerem Shalom/ Karem Abu Salem crossing and the Rafah land crossing.”

UNRWA is still operational in Gaza, but the impact of the U.S. block on assistance has empowered the Israelis to isolate the organization from planning meetings, said William Deere, director of the UNRWA Washington Representative Office.

“Whether or not it’s a coincidence, shortly after President Biden signed the foreign aid appropriation into law, additional steps have been taken that make it harder for UNRWA to help starving Gazans. This includes the rejection of UNRWA humanitarian missions to the northern part of Gaza and an effort to exclude UNRWA from important COGAT coordination meetings.”

Coordination with COGAT is key to trying to provide some protection for humanitarian aid workers but is not foolproof as demonstrated by the deaths of the WCK workers. An Israeli drone strike hit within the perimeter of UNRWA’s main warehouse in Rafah, which killed two UNRWA staffers and seriously injured another 21 workers. 

On at least on three different occasions, UNRWA convoys have been hit by the Israeli Forces, Deere said, either on their way to the north or coming down after delivering food assistance.

But even as Congress has suspended funding to UNRWA for one year, Deere credited the administration for its efforts to encourage other nations to fill the funding gap, including Secretary Blinken’s recent support for UNRWA before the EU. 

“The rush to judgment has cooled, new facts have come to light, and as a result we have donors coming back, including Canada, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Japan. Other donor countries have recently pledged additional contributions to the core budget, and still others have accelerated their payments. While that’s great news, we are still well short of where we need to be to maintain operations.”

Even with UNRWA maintaining operations, the Biden administration and Democrats are saying Israel must do more to allow the unhindered flow of humanitarian assistance.

A majority of Americans said they disapproved of Israel’s actions in Gaza in recent polling by Gallup on the issue, as some Democrats fear what the worsening conflict could mean for the party at the ballot box later this year.   

The U.N.’s World Food Programme warned in a report last month that famine “is imminent in the northern part of the Gaza,” as more than 1 million people in the region “have completely exhausted their food supplies and coping capacities and are struggling with catastrophic hunger.”

In wake of the recent strike killing aid workers for WCK, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, called on Israel to “open additional crossings to allow humanitarian aid to be immediately delivered into the region — these critical resources have been held up for far too long.”

“The deconfliction system for humanitarian deliveries must be improved so aid workers can have confidence in their security,” she said, while pressing for “an immediate ceasefire of at least six weeks and for hostages held by Hamas to be freed.”

Other Democrats have made similar calls as pressure mounts. 

“Since this incident, aid ships carrying 240 tons of additional humanitarian aid have left Gaza’s shore and turned back toward Cyprus, and the UAE is pausing its support of the maritime corridor,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. 

“With the sea route shutting down and delivery of aid via land routes already far too restricted, it is near impossible for enough urgently needed humanitarian assistance to reach Gaza,” he said. “Israel must immediately suspend military operations inside Gaza and allow for a dramatic surge in humanitarian aid.”

Source: The Hill

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