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Government funding deal includes ban on U.S. aid to UNRWA, a key relief agency in Gaza, until 2025, sources say

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The deal on a massive appropriations bill reached between Congress and the White House will include a ban on all direct U.S. funding for the main humanitarian agency operating in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, until March 2025, three sources with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed to CBS News. 

The White House did not mention the cut in aid when it voiced broad support Tuesday for the deal in principle reached with Congress, which President Biden pledged to sign immediately if passed. 

UNRWA, which provides education, healthcare and social services in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria for an estimated six million Palestinian refugees, says that a cutoff in aid would create “a huge gap” in the agency’s funding. 

“This will undermine the effort to assist starving Gazans and potentially further weaken regional stability,” the agency said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Advocates for continuing aid have argued that the cutoff is unconscionable at a time when famine in Gaza is imminent. In January, the Biden administration said it was temporarily pausing new funding to UNRWA pending a U.N. investigation into Israel’s claims that 12 agency employees participated in the deadly Oct. 7 terror attack in Israel that killed at least 1,200 people. The agency says it employs over 30,000 people. Following Israel’s public disclosure, the U.N. terminated ten of those employees, announced two others had died, and launched an investigation.

Before the U.S. pause in funding, the State Department had already provided $121 million to UNRWA this year, spokesperson Matthew Miller said in January. Historically, the full year amount is between $300 and $400 million a year. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump cut all U.S. funding to UNRWA, calling it “irredeemably flawed,” but Mr. Biden restored support in 2021. 

U.S. intelligence found the Israeli allegations to be credible, but did not conduct an independent analysis, relying instead on an evaluation of the intelligence provided by Israel. The current Biden administration pause has no end date pending the outcome of the U.N. review and reevaluation of all UNRWA employees. Now, this congressional deal in the so-called “minibus” will put a statutory prohibition on funding, thus tying the hands of the administration.

The U.S. has historically been the largest donor to UNRWA, which is the agency with the greatest infrastructure for distribution of aid within the 25-mile Gaza Strip. On Sunday, Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland warned on “Face the Nation” that a cut off would have dire consequences.

“If you cut off funding for UNRWA and Gaza entirely, it means more people will starve, more people won’t get the medical assistance they need. And so it would be a huge mistake to cut them off,” Van Hollen said. He went further and argued that it was a longstanding political goal of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government to dismantle UNRWA. 

“Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA because he has seen them as a means to continue the hopes of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own,” Van Hollen said. “And this has been his primary objective, stopping a two-state solution.”

On Wednesday, shortly after a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Saudi Arabia announced it will donate $40 million to the UNRWA. 

UNICEF, the agency that focuses on children and works with the UNRWA, reports that at least 13,000 children have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war to date, and others may be buried under rubble. Those who have survived face acute malnutrition, with 31% of children under the age of 2 now suffering in northern Gaza, according to UNICEF. 

The U.N. agency also reports that 81% of Gaza households lack clean water, and nine out of 10 do not have enough food to survive. The U.S. estimates that more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed.

“What doctors and medical staff are telling us is more and more they are seeing the effects of starvation; they’re seeing newborn babies simply dying because they (are) too low birth weight,” said Dr. Margaret Harris, from the U.N. World Health Organization, on Tuesday. 

Blinken is expected to visit Israel Friday, and the State Department announced that he will discuss “international efforts to dramatically increase and sustain the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians who are suffering from a lack of adequate food supplies.”

UNRWA reports that during the first 17 days of March, an average of just 159 aid trucks per day were allowed to cross into Gaza, which is “well below the operational capacity” of the crossings, and under the 500 per day target. Israeli drone strikes have occurred at or near aid convoys. 

“Security to manage the crossings has been severely impacted due to the killing of several Palestinian policemen in Israeli airstrikes near the crossings in early February,” according to a UNRWA report Wednesday. Israeli strikes have complicated deliveries, and the breakdown in civil order and criminality has also complicated distribution. 

Former U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield, the Biden administration’s special envoy for humanitarian affairs in the Middle East, spoke in February at a Washington think tank about an Israeli Defense Forces strike against a police unit in Gaza that was escorting U.N. aid convoys. He said the strike was complicating efforts to protect and distribute aid.

The U.S. military has been airdropping food and is in the process of building a floating dock three miles off the shore of Gaza to deliver more aid. A U.S. Navy official said this effort will require 1,000 troops and take 60 days to get up and running. Since no U.S. forces will be allowed to be in Gaza, the official said that the distribution of aid — and the decision over who will provide security for the trucks being driven into the territory — was still being worked out with other partners.

Reuters was first to report on the congressional aid cut.The text of the funding agreement has not yet been made public, but is expected to be released in the next 24 hours.

— Ellee Watson, Olivia Gazis and Camila Schick contributed reporting. 

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