Michael F. Brown
The Electronic Intifada / September 7, 2023
A single Republican US senator, Jim Risch of the sparsely populated state of Idaho, is toying with the lives of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Nearly 600 times bigger than Gaza in square miles, rural Idaho has fewer people than Gaza yet the state’s junior senator is able to put a hold on foreign assistance to Palestinian refugees even as he supports vastly more military aid to Israel for its violent and discriminatory policies against those same Palestinians.
The mean-spirited hold with its potential harm to refugees living under Israeli occupation and siege can continue so long as the Biden administration indulges him.
Risch, the most senior Republican on the Committee on Foreign Relations, has put a hold on $75 million in food assistance to the UN agency for Palestine refugees until he receives assurances from the Biden administration that UNRWA is not promoting anti-Semitism or colluding with Hamas.
Yet as Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, notes in a 30 August opinion piece for The Hill: “These and other conditions are already requirements UNRWA must abide by in its framework agreement with the State Department.”
William Deere, director of the UNRWA Washington Representative Office, stated by email to The Electronic Intifada that “the US-UNRWA Framework Agreement literally addresses all of the senator’s concerns. You just have to read it.”
That agreement can be read here.
Notably, it says “the United States and UNRWA condemn without reservation all manifestations of religious or racial intolerance, incitement to violence, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Catholicism, anti-Arabism, or other forms of discrimination or racism against Palestinians, Israelis or other individuals or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief.”
Risch’s stance is a cruel one, but is not surprising coming from one of the US Senate’s most anti-Palestinian voices.
Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, has referred to the “incitement lobby” which for decades has leveled claims of anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks to suggest this causes Palestinian violence.
Those criticizing Palestinian textbooks conveniently ignore the lived oppressive reality as the principal source of Palestinian discontent. And the argument suggests that Palestinians would not be resisting occupation if it were carried out by white Christian Europeans.
Deere notes that “UNRWA schools are centers of academic excellence.”
“Internationally recognized outside evaluators” have empirically demonstrated that “UNRWA’s educational outcomes are among the best in the region and at the lowest cost per student.”
Meanwhile, Israeli textbooks and violent discriminatory policies are largely ignored, certainly by Risch.
Risch’s position threatens the health and wellbeing of Palestinian children who are refugees while disregarding the misdeeds of the apartheid state next door that denies Palestinians their fundamental rights, including the right of UNRWA-assisted children to return to homes and lands from which their families were expelled. As Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, said Wednesday, “Palestine refugees have waited 75 years for a political solution.”
Dalal Yassine, a non-resident fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, told The Electronic Intifada that almost 300,000 refugee children in Gaza returned to UNRWA schools last week and that the funding delay “targets the most vulnerable individuals.”
UNRWA, she said, “also provides health care services to these children and the poorest among them receive food assistance. If members of [the US] Congress were truly concerned about peace and security, they would attempt to understand why UNRWA exists.”
Rather than offer Palestinian children “a better future where their rights are achieved and they are treated equally and humanely,” members of Congress like Risch are “attempting to score cheap political points” at the expense of refugees.
A letter sent in July to Risch by 25 humanitarian and faith organizations noted that “absent these funds, a devastating humanitarian crisis looms with more than 1.2 million people potentially left without food as early as mid-September, including hundreds of thousands of innocent children who will be left hungry.”
This week, more than 20 organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken, exhorting him to move ahead with the food assistance. “Denying food assistance to Palestine refugees is inconsistent with your announced initiative on food insecurity and will strip away the last vestiges of hope for people who simply yearn for a dignified existence.”
In August, Blinken had decried that food is being used increasingly “as a weapon of war, for leverage, for political purposes.”
Stunting and malnutrition are long-standing concerns in Gaza. The $75 million, while available for use in both the West Bank and Gaza, is expected to be used to assist refugees in Gaza.
UNRWA USA National Committee has asked its supporters to contact Blinken to urge him to “immediately obligate the US food assistance funds before UNRWA’s food pipeline breaks.”
Even Suzanne Wrasse, Risch’s spokesperson, acknowledges that “the administration has all the authority they need to provide emergency food assistance to UNRWA.”
But Blinken needs to move – and quickly. Pressure from UNRWA USA should not be necessary, but clearly is as the State Department dithers.
The State Department last week told The Electronic Intifada that “we don’t have anything to offer you on this” and then on Monday stated “we have nothing new to offer here.” The answers suggest an unwillingness to grapple publicly with an extremist anti-Palestinian stance from Risch and an overall lack of urgency in addressing Palestinian malnutrition and possible stunting.
Khaled Elgindy explained what a break in the pipeline would look like in his opinion piece for The Hill.
“Failure to release the funds by Sept. 1 would set off a chain reaction of negative consequences, including a break in the Gaza food pipeline and the potential inability to pay salaries to UNRWA’s 28,000 education, health care and social services staff. In the event the funds are released after Sept. 1, UNRWA officials estimate it would take two to three months to restart its food program.”
UNRWA’s William Deere advised The Electronic Intifada that “the next 10 days are critical.”
“The UNRWA food assistance program in Gaza is a complex series of steps which begins with the agency’s issuance of quarterly tenders for food commodities,” Deere added. “The current offers for food commodities are expiring and if not utilized UNRWA will see a several month delay in commodity deliveries and possible increase of prices once a tendering is re-issued.”
All of this is completely avoidable and undercuts the will of Congress which duly approved the food assistance last year. Then, this May, the State Department indicated it would move forward with the food assistance.
That was when Risch, a repeat opponent of UNRWA and Palestine refugees, intervened.
As Dalal Yassine noted last month in another opinion piece in The Hill, “UNRWA is the main provider of health, education and relief services to over 5.5 million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, as well as under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.”
None of this matters to Risch.
He is intent on supporting Israel – and undermining Palestinians – no matter how far to the right the Israeli government moves.
Following Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address in July to a joint session of the US Congress, Risch declared, “Israel remains an example of a vibrant democracy in the Middle East. As the Israeli people celebrate their 75th anniversary this year, Congress reaffirms its steadfast commitment to Israel and its security.”
He said not a word about Israeli discrimination against Palestinians, decades of occupation, or the dispossession of refugees.
Instead, he pushed the Biden administration “to build off the success of the Abraham Accords by strengthening and expanding the circle of friends with Israel. These relationships are fundamentally transforming the region, and it is in the best interest of the United States to expand them and ensure their continued success.”
In other words, he wants countries in the Middle East to normalize Israeli apartheid.
Progressive Democrats aren’t pushing back in significant numbers against efforts by Democrats and Republicans alike to normalize Israeli apartheid. But 56 members of the House of Representatives and seven senators have noted the danger a delay in food assistance poses.
They assert to Risch in a 29 August letter: “This will create a humanitarian tragedy and poses a huge risk to regional security.” A copy of the letter also went to Blinken.
The Democrats, led by Congressman André Carson and Senator Bernie Sanders, add, “Severe food insecurity continues to rise – now over 40 percent of people in Gaza are severely food insecure.”
According to UNRWA, severe food insecurity means these individuals are routinely going a day without eating.
In a separate 26 July letter to Blinken, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, the most senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, wrote: “UNRWA provides food assistance to 1.2 million Palestinians, 40 percent of which [sic] are children. Three out of four Gazans are [sic] rely on external food assistance through UNRWA or the World Food Program, who [sic] has also recently announced cuts. The situation is urgent.”
The letter seeks to help Palestinians but its underlying grammar certainly dehumanizes Palestinians, reducing them to objects.
She added, “As you are well aware, rising hunger and desperation in such a volatile situation is not in the United States [sic] interest or productive for peace and stability in the region.”
These Democrats are right to resist using food as a weapon – as infamously championed by US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright against Iraqi children – but politically they repeatedly have failed this summer to stand up to Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies.
Too many Democrats continue to follow a policy of “economic peace” – one that has been pursued previously by politicians such as Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
This is a poor substitute for getting at underlying issues such as apartheid, dispossession and occupation. Yet even “economic peace” is too much for someone like Risch who is recklessly jeopardizing the wellbeing of Palestinian children.
Like its predecessor, the Biden administration has failed to address substantive political concerns held by Palestinians.
Dalal Yassine told The Electronic Intifada that the Biden administration’s approach has been “disappointing.”
Admittedly “less hostile than the Trump administration, President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have not made the Palestinians a priority and I don’t expect them to change before the presidential election next year.”
She added, “The pressure from Democrats in Congress may help embarrass the administration into action” – as with the letters on the UNRWA funds – “but I also expect that this will be temporary because pro-Israel voices inside Congress from both parties will continue to target and demonize UNRWA.”
Democrats in Washington don’t want Palestinians to go hungry, but most of them also aren’t interested in fighting to see Palestinians live in freedom and with full equal rights. With a presidential election on the horizon that reality will only become more entrenched.
Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist