Washington Policy Weekly: United States Pauses Funding for UNRWA

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Sen. Rand Paul Introduces Resolution to Disapprove an Arms Sale to Egypt. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a resolution that would disapprove an impending weapons sale to Egypt. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US security assistance, receiving about $1.3 billion each year from Washington.

Sen. Warnock Introduces Bill to Provide Compensation to Former Iran Hostages and Their Families. Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and J.D. Vance (R-OH) introduced S.3647, a bill that would fully compensate employees at the US embassy in Iran—and their families—who were held hostage from 1979 to 1981. These individuals were promised compensation under the United States Victims of State-Sponsored Terrorism (USVSST) Fund, but many of them have received as little as 25 percent of the payment.

Senate Democrats Introduce Amendment to Security Supplemental Affirming Two-State Solution to the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Led by Sen. Brian Shatz (D-HI), 49 senators signed on to an amendment to the national security supplemental that reiterates the US commitment to a two-state solution as a path to peace for Israelis and Palestinians. The move is believed to be in response to recent comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against an eventual state for the Palestinians.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Letter to Secretary Blinken Denounces South Africa ICJ Case. Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Kathy Manning (D-NC) led a group of over 200 members of the House of Representatives in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that denounced the case brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice. The members rejected South Africa’s claims that Israel has committed genocide in Gaza and called on the Biden administration to provide support to Israel in the case. Representative Michael McCaul, who signed the letter and serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also issued a statement, calling the case against Israel meritless and accusing South Africa of having close ties with Hamas.

Sen. Cotton Warns that Menthol Cigarette Ban Will Benefit Terrorist Organizations. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland, “expressing concern about the profit opportunities that a ban on menthol cigarettes would create for terrorist organizations.” In the letter, Cotton asserts that an Food and Drug Administration proposed rule to ban menthol cigarettes “would allow terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah to rake in millions from black market menthol cigarettes and use the profits to finance their terrorist activities.”

Bipartisan Letter Seeks Answers from Administration on US Houthi Strategy. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees (SFRC), Todd Young (R-IN), a member of the SFRC, Chris Murphy (D-CT), chair of the SFRC’s Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism, and Mike Lee (R-UT) sent a letter to President Joe Biden, pressing the administration on its response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. While the senators expressed support for steps to hold the Houthis accountable, they are seeking clarification on the administration’s understanding of “self-defense” in the context of US strikes, an explanation of the legal authority under which the US military has carried out strikes on Houthi targets, and the legal rationale for unilaterally directing military action to defend foreign ships. The lawmakers also reaffirmed the importance of congressional authorization of any “offensive military action.”

Senators Express Concern with Provision of US Military Assistance to Human Rights Violators. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, expressing concern that the Department of Defense (DoD) has provided assistance for human rights abusers and coup governments to participate in US military exercises. The lawmakers assert that such assistance constitutes a violation of the “Leahy Law,” which exists to ensure that foreign military forces receiving such assistance are not themselves human rights abusers. The senators specifically cite the provision of funding support to Sudan and others for participation in joint military exercises as a concern. In response to the senators, DoD has maintained that “joint exercises whose ‘primary purpose’ is to enhance US forces’ capability ‘are not considered assistance’ and do not require Leahy vetting.” Still, the Pentagon halted the trainings with the countries in question.

Letter to Biden Reiterates Support for Two-State Solution. A delegation of congressmembers sent a letter to President Joe Biden, expressing their support for a two-state solution “as the only viable path for a sustainable peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.” The members of Congress noted their concern with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent public rejection of a two-state solution. They also seek an update from the administration on its plan to release hostages, address the threat of Hamas, and implement a two-state solution.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Official Travels to Middle East, Set to Discuss Hostage Deal and Israel’s Operations. US Middle East Envoy Brett McGurk travelled to the Middle East to discuss a range of issues with regional officials, including a potential hostage deal, Israel’s military campaign, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and a postwar plan to create a pathway toward a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi recognition of Israel. Commenting on McGurk’s trip, NSC’s John Kirby restated that the United States is not looking to negotiate a humanitarian pause at this time without the opportunity to get hostages out.

Biden Holds Calls with Arab Leaders. President Joe Biden spoke with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Amir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar. With both leaders, discussions focused on the ongoing war in Gaza, efforts to secure the release of remaining hostages, the humanitarian crisis, and Palestinian statehood and regional security.

White House Reacts to ICJ Genocide Ruling. White House Officials reacted to the ICJ’s provisional ruling on genocide in Gaza. The ruling requires Israel to prevent and punish any public incitements to commit genocide and work to address the humanitarian situation on the ground. Despite the ruling, NSC’s John Kirby maintained that “there’s no indication that we’ve seen that validates a claim of genocidal intent or action by the Israeli Defense Forces.” Even so, Kirby added that the court’s ruling is mostly consistent with the US position: “that Israel has the right to take action against the terrorists of that — on the October 7th attack; that — that they have an obligation to be mindful of minimizing civilian casualties; that they have an obligation to assist the international community to get humanitarian assistance.”

2) State Department

US Pauses Additional Funding for UNRWA. The State Department announced that it is temporarily pausing unallocated funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) following allegations that twelve of its employees may have been involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Thursday to discuss an investigation into the matter and welcomed the Secretary General’s pledge to take decisive action to respond, should the allegations prove credible. US officials added that the suspension in funding “does not, nor should it, impugn the entire agency and the entire — all the body of work that they’re doing.” But pending an investigation, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini announced that the agency has terminated the contracts of some involved employees.

Officials Address Israeli Military Attack on UNRWA Shelter in Gaza. UNR reported that the Israeli military attacked a UN shelter this week, killing nine people inside. A State Department spokesperson stated that the report was “incredibly concerning” and emphasized that “civilians must be protected, and the protected nature of UN facilities must be respected.” White House officials also expressed concern about the attack and reaffirmed Israel’s “responsibility to protect civilians, including, humanitarian personnel and sites.”

US Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Visits Oman. Ambassador Cindy Dyer met with various officials in Oman this week to discuss the government’s policies to combat human trafficking, specifically in the context of domestic worker exploitation.

State Department Approves Sale of F-16 Aircraft to Turkey Following Sweden NATO Accession. The State Department approved a possible Foreign Military Sale to Turkey of F-16 aircraft acquisition and modernization and related equipment for $23 billion. The transaction had been previously delayed, having been contingent on Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s accession to NATO.

State Department Condemns Militia Attack in Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The State Department condemned a Thursday attack by Iran-aligned militia groups in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region that damaged civilian infrastructure there. US officials declared that they stand by the Iraqi leadership, including Iraqi Kurdistan, and will continue to work “in support of Iraqi sovereignty and security.”

3) Department of Defense

DoD Addresses Death of Three Service Members in Jordan. DoD officials announced that three US service members were killed and 34 other were injured from a one-way attack drone at a base in northeast Jordan near the Syria border. The deaths mark the first time US troops have been killed by enemy fire in the region since the beginning of the war in Gaza.

US Continues Strikes on Houthi Targets. US forces continued strikes against Houthi targets as part of a multilateral coalition, targeting 8 Houthi sites in Yemen. Addressing the strikes, DoD officials reiterated that the US focus “is not to escalate or get into a conflict with the Houthis. Our goal is to prevent these continued attacks against the international community and international shipping transiting the Red Sea.” Officials also maintained that the recent strikes are distinct from the mission of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a US-led multinational coalition to bolster maritime security in the Red Sea.

DoD Announces Additional Strikes in Iraq. At President Joe Biden’s direction, US military forces conducted strikes on three facilities used by Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group and other Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq. The strikes were in “direct response to a series of escalatory attacks against U.S. and Coalition personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-sponsored militias.” The strikes drew criticism from Iraqi officials, who stated that the strikes are “undermining agreements and various sectors of joint security cooperation,” in addition to violating Iraq’s sovereignty. It was later reported that US and Iraqi officials plan to meet soon to begin high-level talks that would facilitate the departure of the US-led military coalition in Iraq.

Defense Officials Speak with Israeli Defense Ministers. Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Dr. William A. LaPlante met with Israeli Ministry of Defense Director General Eyal Zamir in Washington DC. During their meeting, US officials reaffirmed US support for Israel, emphasized the need to protect civilian life in Gaza, and shared concerns about regional escalation in Lebanon and the Red Sea. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also held a call with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, and discussed the same topics.

US to Supply Advanced Aircraft to Israel. The United States and Israel are in the process of finalizing an arms sale of advanced aircraft that will be funded by US security assistance. The new sales will include one squadron of 25 F-35s, another squadron of 25 F-15s, and a squadron of 12 Apache attack helicopters.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Announces Additional Sanctions Against Iran-Affiliated Entities. The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced new sanctions against Iraqi airline Fly Baghdad, three leaders and supporters of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), and a financial partner of KH. commenting on the news, the State Department declared that it “remains committed to exposing and taking actions against individuals and groups that abuse their local economies and engage in illegal activities that support terrorist groups destabilizing the region.”

Treasury Announces Fifth Round of Sanctions on Hamas Since October 7. OFAC announced a fifth round of sanctions on Hamas since October 7. The new sanctions target networks of Hamas-affiliated financial exchangers in Gaza, their owners, associates, and financial facilitators that have aided in the transfer of funds from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Australia and the United Kingdom announced concurrent sanctions. In a statement, US officials affirmed that they are “committed to working with our allies and partners to dismantle the financial infrastructure that supports Hamas operations.”

Treasury Announces Sanctions Against Members of the Houthi Leadership. OFAC announced sanctions that will target four key Houthi officials in Yemen in response to the group’s ongoing attacks against vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The sanctions, implemented jointly by the United Kingdom, follow the Department of State’s recent redesignation of the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. At a OFAC roundtable on Thursday, Treasury officials emphasized that the new sanctions will not impact humanitarian activities and the delivery of essential commercial goods to the people of Yemen.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case Brought Against Palestinian Rights Group. The US Supreme Court declined to review a case brought by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and US citizens living in Israel who accused the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights of providing material support for terrorism. The JNF lost the case in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals and was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case effectively upholds the district court’s ruling.