Washington Policy Weekly: Emboldened by Biden, Republicans Ramp Up Efforts to Defund UNRWA

Last week, Republicans quickly mobilized around the Biden administration’s announced suspension of US contributions to UNRWA, leading to a flurry of activity in the House and the Senate. On Tuesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing titled “UNRWA Exposed: Examining the Agency’s Mission and Failures.” Following the hearing, seven separate pieces of legislation were introduced, all of which targeted US funding for the Agency:

Bill Sponsor Purpose
H.R.7202 Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) To seek a report from State Department on US funding to UNRWA
H.R.7206 Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-TN) To designate UNRWA as a Foreign Terrorist Organization
H.R.7111 Rep. Bryan Mast (R-FL) To codify US policy that UNRWA should be disbanded
H.R.7122 Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) To prohibit US aid to UNRWA
S.3708 Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) To prohibit future funding for UNRWA and reprogram already appropriated federal funds
S.3717 Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) To prohibit US voluntary contributions to UNRWA
S.3723 Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) To prohibit US funding to UNRWA

In addition to these pieces of legislation, Republicans also penned letters demanding that the national security supplemental bill include “an immediate and permanent prohibition” of US aid to UNRWA and that the State Department reclaim obligated or committed funding to the agency, and that the UN Secretary General and UNRWA Commissioner-General resign.

With UNRWA’s operations in peril, the Biden administration’s decision to halt funding for the most important provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza is as reckless as it is confusing. For weeks, US officials have praised UNRWA’s work on the ground, calling it a lifeline for Gazans enduring the worsening humanitarian crisis. Just last week, the White House’s John Kirby told reporters that the potential actions by a small number of UNRWA employees should “not impugn the good work of a whole agency.” State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller echoed Kirby’s comments, repeatedly calling UNRWA’s work “critical.” Even so, US officials have provided little to no clarity as to how UNRWA’s services would be replaced should it cease operations, a serious concern facing the humanitarian agency.

Also Happening in Washington Last Week…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

HFAC Chair McCaul Introduces Resolution Condemning Violence in Sudan. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), introduced H.Res.982. The resolution condemns ongoing violence in Sudan and calls on the international community to support diplomatic efforts to reach a cessation of hostilities, protect civilians, and secure access for humanitarian aid.

Representative Moskowitz Introduces Security Supplemental Funding Bill. Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) introduced H.R.7113, a security supplemental funding bill that includes additional aid for Israel and Ukraine. This bill does not include any policies regarding the US border with Mexico, which have been part of previous security supplemental negotiations.

Representatives Introduce Bipartisan Bill Regarding the Abraham Accords and Medical Supply Chains. Reps. Diana Harshbarger (R-TN) and Juan Vargas (D-CA) introduced the United States-Abraham Accords Cooperation and Security Act, H.R.7155. The legislation would establish a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Abraham Accords bureau to increase cooperation between the United States and Abraham Accords signatory countries aimed at protecting US medical supply chains.

Bill to Restrict US Entry for Palestinian-Affiliated Groups Passes House. H.R.6679, “The No Immigration Benefits for Hamas Terrorists Act,” overwhelmingly passed the House 422-2, 1. The bill seeks to prohibit individuals associated with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization from entering the United States. Representatives Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) were the lone “no” votes, with Delia Ramirez (D-IL) voting “present.” The three lawmakers denounced the legislation, calling it redundant and a waste of resources.

Senators Introduce Bill Requiring Report on PA School Curriculum. Senators John Kennedy (R-LA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.3707 which would require the Secretary of State to submit annual reports to Congress regarding the school curriculum implemented by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Express Concerns about Israeli Public Rejection of Two-State Solution. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing their concerns with “the Netanyahu government’s public and repeated rejection of a two-state solution.”

Senator Calls on Biden Administration to Seek Congressional Authority for Strikes Targeting Iran Proxies. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called on the Biden administration to seek congressional approval for airstrikes in the Middle East. The senator noted that the administration “should recognize that the 2001 authorization is not covered with the types of military operations that we are engaged in today.

Senate and House Groups Send Letter to Biden Administration About Iranian Oil. A bipartisan group of senators led by Senators Jim Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) sent a letter to the Biden administration urging officials to “maximize efforts to prevent illicit trade in Iranian oil by implementing and enforcing sanctions on ships, ports, and refineries that deal in Iranian oil.” The letter encourages the administration to strengthen sanction enforcement targeted at Iran. In the House, Reps. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) and Mike Lawler (R-NY) led 60 of their colleagues in a similar letter, pressing the administration to “immediately crack down on Iran’s expanding and lucrative illicit oil trade.”

Bicameral Coalition Seeks Congressional Approval Before Further Arms Transfers to Israel. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) led a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, requesting information on the administration’s decision to bypass congressional review of arms transfers to Israel. The lawmakers expressed concern that such transfers may violate US policy and international law, citing the type of ammunition that has been delivered to Israel’s military, among other things.

Subcommittee on Investigations to Inquire into Saudi Business Dealings in US. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-WI) wrote to Yasir al-Rumayyan, Governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), outlining PSI’s intention to continue its inquiry into Saudi business dealings in the United States. The PIF has previously sought to block four PIF consultants, Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, M. Klein & Company, and Teneo from responding to subpoenas issued by Congress.

Rep. Gottheimer Leads Letter to Biden Calling for Pressure on Qatar. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) led a letter to President Joe Biden, asserting that Qatar has “not fully leveraged its relationship with Hamas to ensure all hostages are released without delay.”

House Democrats Urge Blinken to Fight Israel Genocide Accusations. Representatives Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-FL) and Collin Allred (D-TX), members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, encouraging the State Department to “use the United States’ voice, vote, and influence on the international stage to combat these unwarranted accusations brought by South Africa.” The lawmakers called South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ “determinantal” to long-term conflict resolution efforts in Israel-Palestine, arguing that the case constitutes a “clear misuse of international mechanisms.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Holds Hearing on Red Sea. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing entitled “Menace on the Red Sea: Securing Shipping Against Threats in the Red Sea.” The hearing focused on Houthi threats to global maritime commerce, featuring testimony from shipping and supply chain experts.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Announces New Sanctions on Extremist Settlers in the West Bank. The White House notified Congress this week that it has issued an executive order granting the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury authority to sanction Israeli settlers engaged in terrorist activities in the West Bank, including violence against civilians and intimidating Palestinians to leave their homes. Under this executive order, the State Department announced sanctions against four Israeli nationals who are connected to violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.

White House Updates on Efforts for Hostage Releases. NSC’s John Kirby provided an update on hostage release efforts, indicating that US officials are continuing to push for a humanitarian pause that will allow for the release of hostages and an increase in humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

2) State Department

State Department Addresses Sudan Situation. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee stated during a press briefing that the United States remains committed to a ceasefire and a transition to civilian rule in Sudan. Phee indicated that the US remains engaged with Arab, African, and international partners to promote an agreement and a path forward. Following Phee’s comments, the State Department announced the designation of Sudan’s Former Minister of State for the Interior, Ahmad Mohammad Harun, under the War Crimes Rewards Program. Harun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur between 2003 and 2004.

Officials Travel to Morocco and Turkey. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins travelled to Rabat and Marrakech this week to attend the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) African Political Meeting and Outreach Event. The event and the trip focused on efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to bolster security throughout Africa. Additionally, Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland travelled to Turkey to meet with senior government officials and business leaders to discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.

Officials Meet with Qatari PM. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani of Qatar to discuss the ongoing crisis in Gaza and efforts to secure the release of remaining hostages. The officials agreed to continue close coordination to provide increased humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza and to urge their protection consistent with humanitarian law.

Secretary Blinken Meets with UN Coordinator for Gaza and INGO Representatives. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with UN Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag to discuss efforts to increase the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, and the need to prioritize coordination between the United Nations, Israel, and Egypt. Blinken also met with humanitarian and INGO leaders to discuss the situation on the ground. The secretary reiterated the US’s commitment to increase the flow of humanitarian aid and to protect aid workers.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Saudi FM. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The officials discussed Blinken’s planned trip to the region this week in addition to topics related to the war in Gaza.

3) Department of Defense

DoD Releases Joint Statement on Inaugural Peshmerga Executive Steering Committee. Senior officials from the United States and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq conducted the inaugural Peshmerga Executive Steering Committee to assess progress on the Kurdish security forces reform objectives outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding that was renewed in September 2022. The committee agreed upon future milestones as part of a shared commitment to unify Peshmerga forces under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and “build a professional, capable force to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Defense Secretary Holds Call with Israeli Counterpart. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin  spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant to discuss Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza and the shift to “low-intensity operations.” The secretary also emphasized US support for a diplomatic solution to the attacks along the Israel-Lebanon border, stability in the West Bank, and the uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The pair also spoke about threats to US forces in the region.

DoD Announces Additional Strikes on Houthi Targets in Yemen. On February 1, US Central Command forces carried out strikes targeting Houthi drone control stations in Yemen. CENTCOM stated that the drones “presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy ships in the region.” On February 3, CENTCOM announced US participation in a multilateral coalition strike against 36 Houthi targets at 13 locations in Yemen. In a joint statement, coalition partners reaffirmed that they “will not hesitate to continue to defend lives and the free flow of commerce in one of the world’s most critical waterways in the face of continued threats.”

DoD Announces Strikes in Iraq and Syria. Following an attack on US and Coalition Forces in northeastern Jordan that killed three US service members and injured more than 40 others, US forces conducted airstrikes on more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria against Iranian affiliated groups and IRGC sites. In a statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, the strikes are only “the start of our response.” Secretary Austin added that President Joe Biden “has directed additional actions to hold the IRGC and affiliated militias accountable for their attacks on U.S. and Coalition Forces. These will unfold at times and places of our choosing.”

US and Kuwaiti Forces Participate in Joint Naval Exercise. US and Kuwaiti forces participated in a joint maritime drill aimed at strengthening mutual interoperability and capabilities.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Targets Iran-Aligned Groups. The Department of the Treasury issued a finding and notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that identifies Al-Huda Bank in Iraq as a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern. The measure would sever the bank from the US financial system due to its alleged financial support to Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups. Following the news, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson traveled to Baghdad to meet with senior government officials and financial sector representatives. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) also announced additional sanctions against the Hezbollah and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) financial network, which have been designated as financial facilitators of terrorism by the State Department. Later in the week, the Treasury announced additional sanctions against six officials in the IRGC and a network of suppliers of materials and technology for Iran’s ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle programs.

Treasury Officials Discuss Sanctions Evasion in Dubai. Following a trip to Baghdad, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson traveled to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with Emirati officials to discuss joint efforts to root out evasion of US sanctions, particularly by Russia and Iran and their aligned groups.

US and UK Target Iranian Assassinations Network. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the United Kingdom announced joint action against a network of individuals believed to be involved in acts of transnational repression, including assassinations and kidnappings, against foreign dissidents and Iranian regime opponents.

Treasury Sanctions Two in Connection to ISIS. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions against two cybersecurity experts affiliated with the so-called “Islamic State” for providing the group with cybersecurity training, enabling its use of virtual currency, and supporting the terrorist group’s recruitment. OFAC also designated a financial facilitator involved in transferring funds to ISIS-affiliated individuals in Syria.

Treasury Sanctions Entities with Connections to the Conflict in Sudan. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three entities that are believed to be financially supporting both the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Army in the ongoing conflict in Sudan.

5) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Administrator Meets with Israeli Officials. USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with Major General Ghassan Alian, Head of Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). Administrator Power reiterated the importance of increasing the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza and the pair discussed efforts to prevent any interruptions to the aid entering the territory. Power also expressed concern regarding civilian protection and the need to protect humanitarian aid workers in Gaza.

III. Judicial Branch

US Federal Judge Finds that Israel is Plausibly Engaging in Genocide in Gaza. A federal court in Oakland, CA heard arguments and testimony in the case Defense for Children International – Palestine v. Biden. Although the case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, the judge stated that the “ongoing military siege in Gaza is intended to eradicate a whole people and therefore plausibly falls within the international prohibition against genocide.” The judge also stressed the significant role that the United States is playing through its support of Israel, and “implores Defendants to examine the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against the Palestinians in Gaza.”