Washington Policy Weekly: House Democrats Call for Restored Funding for UNRWA

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Republican Senators Introduce Bill to Block US Aid for Palestinians. On Tuesday, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) introduced S.3814, which would prevent the US government from providing to the Palestinian territories any aid that would normally be prohibited by global terrorism sanctions. Sen. Cruz stated that “the Biden administration exempted and continues to exempt itself from American laws prohibiting material support for terrorism,” citing the administration’s past funding for UNRWA. The bill would prevent the administration from funding UNRWA in the future.

Senate Rejects Resolution Disapproving of F-16 Sale to Turkey. On Thursday, the Senate rejected (79-13) a resolution introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) opposing the proposed sale of F-16 fighter jets and other defense articles to Turkey.

House Republicans Lead Resolution Condemning ICJ Provisional Ruling. On Thursday, Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) introduced H.Res.1041 condemning the International Court of Justice’s issuance of provisional measures against Israel in the case brought by South Africa. The resolution expresses unequivocal US support for Israel and calls on the Biden administration to “formally intervene in this case in support of Israel, to encourage other nations to intervene in this case in support of Israel, and to assess if and how South Africa has been complicit in supporting Hamas and how such complicity may be legally sanctioned.”

Rep. Gottheimer Introduces Israel Funding Bill. While the Senate’s National security supplemental bill awaits a vote the House, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) introduced an emergency supplemental appropriations bill on Thursday that would provide billions of dollars in security assistance to Israel, Ukraine, and other Biden administration priorities.

Rep. Tenney Announces “Recognizing Judea and Samaria Act.” On Thursday, Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) announced the “Recognizing Judea and Samaria Act,” which would require all official United States documents and materials to use the term “Judea and Samaria” instead of the “West Bank.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Call for More Assistance in Gaza. On Wednesday, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), André Carson (D-IN), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) led 47 other members of Congress in calling for full funding for UNRWA. In a letter to congressional appropriators, the signatories underscored UNRWA’s “unique and essential role in delivering humanitarian aid in the region” and called on the Biden administration to restore US funding for the agency. On the same day, several Senate Democrats sent a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog about the urgent need for humanitarian aid in Gaza. The letter calls on Israel to expand delivery of humanitarian aid, establish sufficient humanitarian aid access points into Gaza, improve deconfliction mechanisms, and plan for a restoration of Gaza’s critical infrastructure. Finally, a Wednesday letter from Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME) to President Joe Biden urged the administration to deploy a US Navy hospital ship to the region to treat wounded Palestinian civilians.

House Letters Support Ongoing Ceasefire Talks. Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) sent a letter to the Biden administration on Thursday urging the president to oppose an Israeli invasion of Rafah and to facilitate a ceasefire in Gaza. The letter was followed on Friday by a more supportive letter to Biden led by Reps. Brad Schneider (IL-10) and Jimmy Panetta (CA-19) and signed by 27 House colleagues supporting the administration’s efforts to forge an agreement between Israel and Hamas to release hostages and pause the fighting in Gaza.

Reps. Schakowsky and Connolly Express Concern Over Protection of Journalists in Gaza. On Wednesday, Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) led 23 House members in a letter to  Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressing concern over the high death toll of journalists” and challenges to press freedom in Gaza.

House Members Call for UNRWA Chief to Testify. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and two HFAC subcommittee chairs, along with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), wrote to Commissioner-General of UNRWA Philippe Lazzarini on Wednesday requesting that he testify before the committee regarding allegations leveled at UNRWA that some of its employees participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack.

GOP Letter Criticizes Biden Sanctions on Settlers and Arms Transfers Accountability Measures. A Thursday letter led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and signed by eight other Senate Republicans criticized the Biden administration’s February 1 executive order regarding sanctions on Israeli settlers and its February 8 national security memorandum regarding accountability for transferred defense articles. Although the memorandum does not name Israel, the letter criticizes Biden for “arbitrarily punish[ing] Israelis,” continuing that the administration has not acted sufficiently against the Palestinian Authority for alleged support of terrorists.

Representative Ogles Leads Three Letters Against Biden’s Palestinian Policies Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN) led three letters to the House Committee on Appropriations on February 23. Co-signed by fellow Republicans, the first letter calls for the Biden administration to end Deferred Enforced Departure for Palestinians. The second urges the administration to defund the US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem, while the third calls for revoking Qatar’s Major Non-NATO Ally status due to its purported “support for Hamas terrorists and the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole.”

HFAC’s McCaul Sends Letter to Blinken About Iran Nuclear Violations. On Friday, HFAC Chair Rep. McCaul sent a letter to Secretary Blinken reiterating his call for the Biden administration to take “serious action” at the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) meeting to address potential violations of Iran’s nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Congressional Delegation Meets with Palestinian Caretaker PM. On Sunday, a congressional delegation met with Palestinian caretaker Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who called on the United States to resume funding for UNRWA and to support a ceasefire and briefed the delegation on settler violence in the West Bank.

3) Hearings and Briefings

SFRC Holds Hearing on Red Sea Security. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on Tuesday on Yemen and Red Sea security issues. The hearing saw testimony from US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Daniel Shapiro. The hearing addressed maritime security concerns in the Red Sea, particularly the US-led multinational response to Houthi threats to commercial vessels. Of note, some SFRC members questioned the self-defense justification for continued US involvement, with a particularly strong statement made by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who called the United States’ defense of commercial ships of other nations “laughable” as he declared that “there’s no constitutional authorization that would allow a President to do that unilaterally.”

SFRC Holds Hearing on Iranian Influence in the Region. On Wednesday, SFRC held a hearing entitled “Tehran’s Shadow Army: Addressing Iran’s Proxy Network in the Middle East.” The hearing, at which two think-tank experts testified, covered US responses to Iran-affiliated groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, focusing on the prevention of regional escalation, sanctions, nuclear negotiations, and terrorist financing.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Gantz to Visit Washington This Week. Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s National Unity Party and coalition partner in the country’s war cabinet, will reportedly visit Washington this week to meet with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other US officials. The visit is unwelcome by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who looks at Gantz as a rival for the premiership.

VP Harris Urges Israel to Do More to Allow Aid into Gaza. On Sunday, citing “the immense scale of suffering in Gaza,” Vice President Kamala Harris declared that “there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks,” adding that the Israeli government “must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses.” The Vice President’s remarks were the most critical presidential or vice-presidential level public comments on Israel’s conduct in Gaza since October 7.

White House Requests Written Assurances from Israel Regarding Use of Weapons by March. Media reporting last week indicated that the Biden administration has requested that Israel provide written assurances that it is abiding by international law when using US-provided weapons in its campaign in Gaza. This reported request follows the White House’s recent National Security Memorandum aiming to ensure that all US security assistance is used in line with international and humanitarian law.

White House Calls on Congress to Pass National Security Supplemental. President Biden and Vice President Harris met with congressional leadership last Tuesday to discuss efforts to pass the national security supplemental, which would provide additional security assistance to Israel and Ukraine and additional humanitarian aid for Palestinians. The supplemental was passed by the Senate in mid-February, but the House has yet to advance the package.

Biden Speaks with Regional Leaders. President Biden spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Thursday regarding Gaza humanitarian aid and ongoing ceasefire negotiations.

2) Department of State

Department of State Provides Update on Humanitarian Situation and Ceasefire Negotiations. Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller indicated on Wednesday that the Biden administration is working to open additional humanitarian corridors into Gaza. Miller also stated that the United States hopes that a temporary ceasefire and hostage deal is reached as soon as possible, as this “would resolve a lot of the issues regarding the distribution of humanitarian assistance.”

Department of State Addresses Fatal Aid Incident in Gaza. The Department of State addressed Thursday’s deadly incident in which more than 112 Palestinians were killed while trying to access aid in Gaza. Following reports that the deaths resulted from Israeli military fire, Spokesperson Mathew Miller told reporters on Thursday that the Department was “urgently seeking additional information on exactly what took place.” Israeli officials have since absolved themselves of any wrongdoing, although this claim contradicts local accounts by eyewitnesses and health officials in Gaza.

Special Envoy for Sudan Announced. The Department of State announced the appointment of Tom Perriello as US Special Envoy for Sudan last Monday. In this role, Special Envoy Perriello will coordinate US policy on Sudan and advance US efforts to end hostilities.

Blinken Meets with Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Blinken met with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. The two officials discussed the US partnership with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) in the context of regional security, good governance, economic prosperity, and human rights in Iraq. Later in his visit, Prime Minister Barzani also met with White House and Department of Defense officials.

Blinken Speaks with Regional Leaders. Last week, Secretary of State Blinken spoke with officials from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The discussions focused on ongoing efforts to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza, the prevention of regional escalation, US efforts to press Israel to stop extremist settler violence, the US commitment to no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel. With Emirati and Saudi officials, Blinken also addressed the situation in Sudan.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Conducts Humanitarian Airdrops in Gaza. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Royal Jordanian Air Force conducted a joint humanitarian assistance airdrop into Gaza on Saturday. The airdrop, which included 38,000 meals, is intended to supplement humanitarian operations on the ground. The Biden administration says that additional drops will follow in the coming weeks.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Israeli Defense Minister About Hostages and Aid. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant on Wednesday. Secretary Austin inquired about Gallant’s assessment of the ongoing negotiations to release Israeli hostages held in Gaza and emphasized the need for more aid to reach Palestinians.

CENTCOM Commander Heads to Region. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla visited Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel last week to review the security and humanitarian situation in the region. Gen. Kurilla met with representatives from government, international organizations, and NGOs during his visit.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Qods Force and Houthi-Affiliated Supporters. On Tuesday, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced joint sanctions with the United Kingdom against the Deputy Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and a Houthi group member. OFAC also announced sanctions against two companies shipping to China more than $100 million in Iranian commodities on behalf of Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which facilitates the delivery of Iranian weapons to Russia and Iranian-aligned groups in the Middle East.

Treasury Releases Statement After Meeting of Counter ISIS Finance Group. The Department of the Treasury released a joint statement on Tuesday with partners in the Counter ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), a working group of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Group members committed to strengthen anti-money laundering regimes, enhance oversight of all payment mechanisms, protect the non-profit sector from abuse, and increase public actions against Islamic State donors, fundraisers, and financial facilitators.

Secretary Yellen Meets with Turkish and Saudi Officials in Brazil. On Thursday, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen met on Thursday with Turkish finance officials at the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors meeting in São Paulo, Brazil. The officials discussed Turkish economic policy and United States-Turkey cooperation on regional issues, including strengthening anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism regimes and sanctions enforcement. Secretary Yellen also met with Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al-Jadaan and discussed Saudi economic reform and avenues for US-Saudi collaboration in bilateral and multilateral settings.

5) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Announces Additional Assistance to Gaza and West Bank. On Tuesday, USAID announced an additional $53 million in humanitarian assistance (HA) for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The funding will support programs by the World Food Programme (WFP) and international NGOs to provide food, health, nutrition, shelter, protection, and water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance. Since October 7, the Biden administration has announced more than $180 million in new HA for Gaza and the West Bank.

Samantha Power Visits Jordan, Israel, and West Bank. Last Monday and Tuesday, USAID Administrator Samantha Power traveled to Jordan to visit USAID development projects and to meet with government and senior UN officials to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Power later went to the West Bank and Israel, meeting with UN officials, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli leaders.