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Biden signs U.S. spending bill with halt on UNRWA funds through 2025

The spending bill also has other 'key pro-Israel provisions' aimed at the U.N. and other international organizations.

U.S. President Biden signing a fiscal measure on March 1 in the Oval Office.
U.S. President Biden signing a fiscal measure on March 1 in the Oval Office. (AN/Cameron Smith)

The U.S. spending package signed by President Joe Biden blocks funding meant to help Palestinian refugees and investigate war crimes in Gaza.

It delivers a significant blow to the already cash-strapped United Nations, withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency and other agencies dealing with the Israel-Hamas war.

After visiting the Egyptian side of Gaza's border, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres demanded Israel allow aid to go to Palestinians, and he called on Israel and Hamas to agree to an immediate cease-fire.

"The whole world recognizes that it’s past time to silence the guns and to ensure an immediate humanitarian ceasefire," he told a press briefing on Sunday with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. "On one side of the border there are blocked humanitarian trucks as far as the eye can see."

"On the other," he added, "we have a real-time humanitarian catastrophe stretching even farther. Looking at Gaza, it almost appears that the four horsemen of war, famine, conquest and death are galloping across it."

Biden signed the US$1.2 trillion spending package to avoid a government shutdown by funding federal agencies through the end of September. About 1.2%, or US$1.54 billion, is allocated for international organizations.

"The bipartisan funding bill I just signed keeps the government open, invests in the American people, and strengthens our economy and national security," he said on Saturday. "This agreement represents a compromise, which means neither side got everything it wanted."

After alleging some staffers with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East were involved in Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, Israel lobbied U.S. lawmakers to withhold money from the agency.

The U.S. contributed US$422 million to UNRWA last year, about 30% of its budget. The money pays for essential items such as food and medicine that Palestinians depend on in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East.

UNRWA, established in 1949 after Palestinian refugees and others fled fighting when Israel was created, now has more than 30,000 staff but faces a US$350 million deficit unless other countries boost their contributions.

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency's commissioner-general, said the limitations on funding for UNRWA until March 2025 will have implications for Palestine refugees in Gaza and the region.

"In Gaza, the humanitarian community is racing against the clock to avert famine," he said. "As the backbone of the humanitarian response, any gap in funding to UNRWA will compromise access to food, shelter, primary health care and education at a time of deep trauma."

The World Health Organization warned last week the situation in Gaza is catastrophic, with northern Gaza facing "imminent famine" and the rest of the Strip at risk as well.

Organizations must show 'steps to combat anti-Israel bias'

The 972-page spending bill requires U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to report within 120 days on whether all international organizations, including the United Nations, are meeting a set of strict criteria.

Blinken's report must include information about whether organizations are "taking credible steps to combat anti-Israel bias" and are "implementing policies and procedures to effectively vet staff for any affiliation with a terrorist organization."

AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, praised the spending bill "for including key pro-Israel provisions" such as US$3.3 billion for Israel's security and a one-year ban on aid for UNRWA.

Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz called the U.S. spending bill "a clear vote of no confidence" in Guterres, the U.N. chief. "Under his leadership UNRWA has become a terrorist arm of Hamas."

The bill helps Israel pay for its Iron Dome and other defensive systems, but it specifies that "none of the funds appropriated by this act may be made available for the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel."

The U.N. commission of inquiry has been investigating war crimes in Gaza at the request of the Geneva-based 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council.

Under the bill, the cannot receive U.S. funding unless it demonstrates it "is taking significant steps to remove Israel as a permanent agenda item and ensure integrity in the election of members to such council."

Israel is the only nation that has its human rights record examined at each of the council's sessions, which are held several times a year, under a standing agenda item, “Palestine and other occupied Arab territories," known as Item 7.

This story has been updated with additional details.