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The PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness signs letter urging funding restoration to UNRWA

Letter sent to President Biden, House and Senate leaders

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mohammed Ibrahim via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness joined with more than 100 additional immigrant, refugee, human rights and humanitarian organizations urging Congress to introduce and pass legislation that supports reinstating funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA. The letter calls it a “moral and strategic failure” to suspend funding during a period of catastrophe and extreme need.

UNRWA provides education, health care and social services to Palestinian refugees. U.S. funding for UNRWA was halted on Jan. 26 after it was alleged that 12 UNRWA employees collaborated with Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. A recent webinar presented by OPW focused on UNRWA’s role in the region, where it was noted that 13,000 of UNRWA’s 30,000 employees worked in Gaza. Most of the workers are Palestinian refugees.

The letter, addressed to President Biden, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, emphasizes that cutting off funding to UNRWA “completely erodes the international community’s ability to respond to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” and that UNRWA’s ability to provide services that are essential to the survival of Palestinians is irreplaceable. It further states that international non-governmental organizations and other UN-based organizations do not have the personnel, resources, or infrastructure to adequately address the current humanitarian needs in Gaza. UNRWA also provides assistance to more than three million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

A recent news report noted that Israel has yet to provide evidence that UNRWA employees had ties to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. However, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson has accused more than 2,000 UNRWA workers of being members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The April 29 letter

Dear President Biden, Speaker Johnson, and Leader Schumer,

We, the undersigned 103 immigrant, refugee, human rights and humanitarian organizations, write to express our alarm and deep disappointment following Congress’s decision to reinforce and codify the Biden Administration’s suspension of U.S. funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the principal aid provider for millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and in the surrounding region. Suspending funding during a humanitarian catastrophe, widespread starvation and looming famine is a moral and strategic failure that abandons nearly two million displaced Palestinians during a period of extreme need. We call on Congress to urgently introduce and pass legislation and for the President to support reinstating funding to UNRWA.

For over six decades, the United States has been one of the strongest supporters of UNRWA, including its largest bilateral donor. Without U.S. support, UNRWA cannot effectively carry out its role as the largest humanitarian agency in the region. Currently, UNRWA is working to provide life-saving assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who are facing extreme malnutrition, starvation, and an outbreak of deadly diseases due to Israel’s ongoing bombing campaign and deprivation of aid. To date, over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands more injured without access to functioning hospitals or appropriate medical care. The situation in Gaza is extraordinarily dire, and the need to ensure civilian protection and humanitarian relief is crucial.

Cutting off funding to UNRWA completely erodes the international community’s ability to respond to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. International NGOs and other UN organizations have repeatedly stated that they do not have the personnel, resources, or infrastructure to respond to the humanitarian needs in Gaza appropriately. Continuing UNRWA operations is imperative to address and alleviate the ongoing crisis. There is no debate that UNRWA’s ability to provide services, including food, water, medical assistance, and protection, is irreplaceable and essential to the survival of Palestinians in Gaza, especially now as famine is imminent.

Furthermore, prohibiting funding to UNRWA not only affects Palestinians in Gaza, but also harms over three million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria who depend on its services for shelter, education, financial assistance, access to healthcare, and more. Palestinian refugees are excluded from receiving any protection or other assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is mandated to provide aid to all other refugees globally. Thus, UNRWA is the primary entity serving this population and has effectively been doing so since its establishment over 75 years ago. UNRWA’s unique experience, knowledge, and expertise within the region and with the Palestinian refugee population is indispensable.

Following allegations by Israeli officials that 12 members of UNWRA’s staff in Gaza had taken part in the October 7 attack against Israel, 16 countries —including the United States — halted their funding of the critical organization. UNRWA took immediate action in investigating the allegations and removed the accused staff. A newly released report following an independent review for the UN reveals that Israel has yet to provide any evidence to substantiate the initial claims.  While investigations continue, Australia, Canada, Japan, the European Commission, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, France, and Germany have all recognized that UNRWA remains the only entity with capacity to ensure safe and effective delivery of aid and services in Gaza on the scale the current situation requires, and have resumed their funding.

UNRWA employees have risked their lives to fulfill their mission of providing aid during Israel’s continued bombardment in Gaza. As of April 24, 180 UNRWA staff members have been killed, which is “the highest number of aid workers killed in the history of [the] organization in such a short time,” according to the Director-General of the U.N. office in Geneva. Due to the near-impossible circumstances, the Agency has struggled to provide food, medicine, and clean water to the approximately one million displaced Palestinians seeking refuge in or around 154 UNRWA shelters. Now, with the loss of vital funding from the United States, UNRWA’s humanitarian aid operations will inevitably collapse, and Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere will continue to suffer grave consequences.

The United States should uphold its commitment to the human rights of the Palestinian people and resume its role as a strong supporter of UNRWA by passing legislation to reinstate funding to the humanitarian agency immediately. Failing to do so would be a moral stain on this Administration and Congress’s legacy.

The letter is signed by the Office of Public Witness and more than 100 other organizations.

A landing page listing numerous multi-media resources on the current Israel-Palestine conflict can be found here.

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