Summary: Republicans in Washington have invoked an arcane device to withhold urgently needed humanitarian food aid to Palestinians.
As the Netanyahu regime piles abuse upon abuse on Palestinians – the latest outrage involves the strip search of women in their own homes – a political game is being played out in Washington D.C.
Two Republicans, Idaho Senator Jim Risch and Texas Representative Michael McCaul are withholding approval of US$75 million of food aid to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The aid is administered by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The justification for their action – which backs the long-held view of successive Israeli governments – is that the UN in providing humanitarian aid for Palestinians aids and abets terrorism.
Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative André Carson led a bicameral cohort of 63 Democratic senators and house representatives, writing to Senator Risch and asking him to release the hold, citing rising food insecurity and cuts to the World Food Programme budget:
Food insecurity in Gaza is already at a tipping point following the WFP’s decision to reduce assistance from 300,000 Gazans down to 100,000 – necessitated by that agency’s overall funding shortage.
Their letter, dated 29 August, concludes by noting: “Helping to assure the provision of food assistance to refugees in need is yet another reflection of American values as well as in diplomatic and security interests of the United States.”
As of today the hold remains in place. An UNRWA source told Arab Digest:
If the $75 million is not obligated shortly, a ‘break’ will be triggered in the UNRWA food pipeline as early as mid-October and 1.2 million Palestine refugees, including almost half a million children, will cease receiving food aid. UNRWA food represents 60% of Gaza’s overall monthly commodity imports; as a result the cessation of these imports also risks severe damage to the Gaza economy writ large.
The source said the next ten days are “critical.”
While President Joe Biden reversed many of the draconian measures visited on the Palestinians by Donald Trump he has yet to intervene and use his executive powers to override the hold. Writing in The Hill, the Middle East Institute’s Khaled Elgindy notes that:
Biden does indeed have the authority he needs to disburse the funds over Risch’s objections. But this will require taking a stand and expending at least some political capital on an issue—the Palestinians—that has not been a political priority for the administration thus far.
Elgindy may be understating when he writes that Palestine and the Palestinians are not a political priority for a president whose only meaningful intervention in the Middle East is to take up Trump’s Abraham Accords and attempt to fast track Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel with only the thinnest of commitments to the Palestinians. As Jon Hoffman noted in our Wednesday podcast were such a deal to be realised:
Regarding the Palestinians writ large, they will as always come out on the short end of this entire deal. And this is what the Abraham Accords were designed to do. They were designed to sideline Palestine and sideline the Arab public or the Arab Street, whatever term you prefer, while coordinating high level cooperation between political elites in the Middle East who want to preserve the status quo. And that also extends to political elites in Washington. The Palestinians will as always get the short end of the stick.
One might have thought as extremists in the Netanyahu government like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich rampage at will behaving more like terrorists than ministers the Biden administration and indeed Senator Risch would find their absolute support for Israel to be somewhat tenuous. That does not yet appear to be the case. Rather, it seems, the opposite.
Biden or his Secretary of State Antony Blinken could at any point over the past several months have overridden the Risch/McCaul hold. It is after all an attempt to hold civilians, many of them children, hostage to political manoeuvring using food as a weapon. Not to call out the Republicans ensures more misery for the Palestinians and more instability at a time when the actions of the Israeli government are further destabilizing an already dangerously volatile situation.
As Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and the others in the gang of fascists that Netanyahu has assembled openly collude in and campaign for illegal land seizures, home demolitions and deliberate and daily humiliations such as the strip search, the Biden administration responds by scolding lightly while here the ongoing abuse of Palestinians has produced only a stolid silence from the FCDO and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.