Congress Works to Give More Aid to Israel, None for UNRWA

On February 13, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a $95.3 billion national security supplemental package (H.R.815) to provide additional security assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, among other provisions. The bill moved to the House of Representatives for consideration, but its passage there has numerous hurdles. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) said that the measure is unlikely to be taken up there because it lacks border security provisions. Additionally, about half of House Republicans do not support further aid to Ukraine, which constitutes the bulk of the security package.

Notably, the only two Democrats to oppose the bill were Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Peter Welch (D-VT). They were joined by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The three raised concerns about the package for weeks, citing the bill’s prohibition of funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), offensive military aid in support of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza, and erosion of support among Arab states. Nevertheless, President Joe Biden praised negotiators for getting a deal done, calling the supplemental agreement a critical tool for supporting Ukraine and Israel while addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza.

What Is in the Package?

The national security supplemental addresses the Biden administration’s priorities as outlined in the president’s October request. In its current form, the measure provides for:

  • $60.06 billion in security assistance to Ukraine,
  • $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel,
  • $2.44 billion to support US CENTCOM operations and address combat expenditures related to conflict in the Red Sea,
  • $9.15 billion in humanitarian assistance to provide food, water, shelter, medical care, and other essential services to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, Ukraine, and other populations,
  • $4.83 billion to support regional partners in the Indo-Pacific to deter China,
  • $481 million to continue support for displaced Ukrainians, and,
  • $400 million for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to help nonprofits and places of worship make security enhancements.

Previous versions of the package included funds and policy provisions related to the US-Mexico border. But with the border provisions taken out, H.R.815 garnered enough support to advance.

Security Assistance for Israel

In addition to assistance for Ukraine’s war efforts, H.R.815 is headlined by a proposed $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel. Senate lawmakers have been working to deliver Israel security assistance for months, whether in a standalone bill or in one that is tied to a larger security package. H.R.815 specifically allocates funds for Israel’s military through the procurement of Iron Dome, Iron Beam, David’s Sling and defense systems, advanced weapons systems, and other “related expenses,” all of which President Biden has described as urgently needed in order to protect Israelis from threats posed by Hamas and Hezbollah.

The delivery of billions in security assistance is also significant in the context of the White House’s recent memorandum on safeguards and accountability for transferred defense services. Issued on February 8, the White House aimed to ensure that US security assistance is used in line with international and humanitarian law. In addition to requiring assurances from recipient countries on the proper use of US weapons and defense technologies, the memorandum requires the Department of Defense and the Department of State to assess whether American weapons have been used in compliance with international law and established best practices for preventing civilian harm.

In this context, the Biden administration’s push for $14.1 billion in additional military aid to Israel is difficult to reconcile. With a civilian death toll nearing 29,000, Israel’s war on Gaza has skirted established practices for civilian protection, prompting criticism from both international legal bodies and President Biden himself. While US officials have rejected accusations that Israel has breached international law in Gaza, a pile of evidence to the contrary continues to mount. For this reason, the concurrent release of the memorandum and the passage of a massive Israel security package have come to symbolize the ambivalence in the US strategy for Gaza—at once unconditionally supporting Israel’s brutal war while lamenting the loss of civilian life that it has caused.

No Funding for UNRWA Is a Political Win for Republicans

The United States’ confused position on Gaza is also captured by H.R.815’s discontinuation of US aid to UNRWA, a move that builds on the Biden administration’s recent decision to suspend funding for the agency. While the supplemental package allocates $9.15 billion in humanitarian assistance, it does so without provision of any funds for the preeminent humanitarian organization working in Gaza. Moreover, the supplemental package curiously does not specify how UNRWA’s services will be replaced. While it has been reported that there are plans to administer humanitarian aid through other agencies such as the World Food Program or UNICEF, UN officials have been adamant that there is no viable short-term substitution for UNRWA’s work in Gaza.

The Senate’s passage of the security supplemental is also significant for what it means for the conversation around UNRWA in American politics. With the Senate vote, there is a decisive shift in the way that lawmakers are thinking about the rights and needs of Palestinians. Emboldened by Biden’s decision to suspend funding for UNRWA, a once partisan issue has become a moment of rare bipartisan accord. Defunding UNRWA has long been a Republican-led effort, and votes around UNRWA-related issues have traditionally followed party lines. As recently as September 2023, lawmakers voted 213-218 against an amendment to the 2024 foreign aid and appropriations bill that would have suspended US contributions to UNRWA (and with only two Democrats breaking with the party vote). Remarkably, in a matter of months, Democratic support for UNRWA has practically vanished. In its place has emerged a growing bipartisan effort to institutionalize an end to US funding for the organization, facilitating not only a long-sought political win for Republicans, but a horrifying loss for Palestinians in Gaza and around the region. Replacing US support for UNRWA—which stood at $422 million in 2023, amounting to 30 percent of its budget—represents a significant political and economic challenge to EU and Arab allies committed to the survival of the UN agency’s vital humanitarian services in the Middle East.

Going Forward

Given the general dissatisfaction with the proposed bill in its current form in the House of Representatives, lawmakers there could choose to vote on amendments to the bill and send it back to the Senate, draft a comprehensive alternative, or break up the Senate’s bill into parts. In the latter scenario, Congress could try to advance a standalone measure that decouples aid for Israel from Biden’s other national security priorities. However, similar attempts have failed to date, most recently H.R.7217, which would have sent $17.6 billion in aid to Israel and funded CENTCOM operations.

If Johnson decides not to bring H.R.815 up for a vote, House Democrats could attempt to creatively force one with available legislative tools, but these may be too time-consuming and cause further delay for urgently requested security aid. With steady pressure from the White House and its Senate supporters to finally bring a supplemental bill to the President’s desk for his signature, all eyes will be on House lawmakers in the coming days and weeks.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.