Gaza starves as U.S. permanently cuts funding to UNRWA aid agency
Palestinians plead for food at a distribution point in Rafah. As Gaza starves, the U.S. has cut funding to the chief aid agency, UNRWA, and Israel continues to blockade most entry points for truck deliveries. | Fatima Shbair / AP

Just two days before instructing his United Nations ambassador to abstain and allow a Security Council ceasefire resolution to pass, President Joe Biden signed a budget package that permanently cut all funding for UNRWA—the organization responsible for distributing most food, water, and shelter aid in Gaza—and simultaneously approved $3.8 billion of fresh cash for the Israeli government.

Now, a week later, the U.N. says that famine is “becoming a reality” in the territory as Israel’s war grinds on and food supplies dwindle. Some leaders conclude it’s already happening.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said, “Starvation is used as a weapon of war.” He went on to ask, “By whom?” before answering: “Let’s dare to say by whom. By the one that prevents humanitarian support from entering into Gaza. Israel is provoking famine.”

According to a report from Al Jazeera journalists who followed several families in Gaza this week, many people are fortunate if they’re able to consume 300 calories per day.

Canned cheese, a few beans, a chunk of a tomato, and makeshift bread baked from flour or whatever flour substitute can be found—these are meals of the lucky ones in Gaza. On many days, some families literally have nothing to eat—zero calories. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends 2,000 calories per day for healthy adults.

UNRWA—the United Nations Relief Works Agency—is heavily reliant on U.S. funding; Washington provided $343 million in 2022. So, combined with Israel’s blocking of almost all entry points into Gaza, experts expect the U.S. action to make the situation on the ground in Gaza even worse.

Crippling UNRWA

The bill that Biden signed was a bipartisan funding deal crafted to avoid a U.S. government shutdown last week. Republicans inserted the provision banning funds for UNRWA, but other than a few progressive lawmakers, most Democrats—and the White House—accepted the bill without reservation. Biden affixed his signature to the bargain as soon as it hit his desk.

“This is how genocide is legislated,” the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace said in response. “Budgets are moral documents, and this one is murderous.”

The bill extends the “temporary” halt on UNRWA funding issued in January for at least the rest of the fiscal year. Transfers to UNRWA were stopped after the Israeli government accused approximately a dozen agency employees of participating in the Oct. 7 attacks carried out by Hamas.

To date, Israel has provided little if any solid proof of its accusations, and an internal UNRWA report in February alleged that several of its staff members had been tortured and coerced by Israeli troops into admitting supposed links to Hamas.

Right-wing Israelis call for the destruction of the UNRWA aid agency at a protest in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. The Israeli government has sought to undermine and delegitimize UNRWA ever since it was founded to help Palestinians expelled from their land in the 1940s to make way for the founding of the State of Israel. | Mahmoud Illean / AP

The Israeli government has long sought to undermine the legitimacy of UNRWA, stretching all the way back to 1949 when the organization was founded to help Palestinians who’d been expelled from their homes and land to make way for the founding of a Jewish state.

Netanyahu’s cabinet was also angered recently when UNRWA’s reports were used as evidence in the genocide case brought before the International Court of Justice by South Africa. The Israeli Defense Forces declared earlier in March that it plans to unilaterally destroy UNRWA throughout the occupied territories.

With the accusations of Hamas collaboration being proved essentially baseless—only nine out of 13,000+ UNRWA staff in Palestine have been dismissed after a U.N. investigation—almost every country that joined the U.S. pause has resumed funding the aid group, including the European Union, Canada, Britain, Australia, Sweden, Finland, and Japan.

Most nations not in the sphere of U.S. imperialism never cut the funds they provide to UNRWA, a list that includes China, Vietnam, Russia, and others.

White House two-step

Ceasefire activists and progressives here in the U.S., meanwhile, remain critical of the diplomatic dance Biden continues to do when it comes to the carnage in Gaza.

The White House expresses endless “frustration” with Netanyahu, air drops some crates of aid onto the beaches of Gaza and even relents at the U.N., letting a Security Council resolution demanding a permanent ceasefire pass.

But then, at the same time, the administration approves fresh shipments of weapons to Netanyahu, declares the U.S. will block any enforcement of the U.N. resolution it just allowed to pass, and then permanently bans money for the one agency capable of feeding starving Palestinians.

Many allege it’s the president’s own version of the old “two-step,” a dance that shuffled back and forth but generally left dancers standing on the floor in the same place that they started—a metaphor for a process that appears to represent movement but barely moves the needle when it comes to stopping the killing.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), told the press this week that “Biden administration policy since October 7 has been tragically flawed.” She called approval of the UNRWA funding ban extension “an incredible moral failure.”

She sees little substantive change from the U.S., so far. The Biden administration has belatedly embraced the word “ceasefire,” but action to deny the Israeli military the weapons for its war remains off the table.

“Instead of course-correcting, instead of digging out the hole that they have placed the U.S. in, and that has harmed the U.S. world standing,” Berry said, “they have not been able to actually pivot.

“That’s some bullshit”

The strongest voices in Congress opposed the war also aren’t letting up in their criticism of U.S. complicity in the genocide.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., from left, speaks alongside Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Jonathan Jackson, D-Ill., and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., during a vigil with state legislators and faith leaders on hunger strike outside the White House to demand that President Joe Biden call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, Nov. 29, 2023. These progressive voices have continued their criticisms of the administration, which still provides weapons to Israel and has agreed to permanently cut funding for UNRWA. | Nathan Howard / AP

Speaking on the House floor just before the vote on the funding package, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., reminded fellow lawmakers that the IDF is committing “some of the most horrific crimes against humanity” seen so far in the 21st century.

“The Israeli government has been intentionally starving the Palestinian people,” she said.

Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, pointed to UNRWA as the only “major organization that provides desperately needed food and humanitarian assistance to starving Palestinians.”

Turning to those seated in the House, she declared, “You members here…are now going to be contributing to the starvation of Palestinian families,” she said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called the move to cut funds “unconscionable” and said the accusations against UNRWA staff made by Israel are “not grounded in sound facts.”

The words of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., were even stronger. “That’s some bullshit,” he told the media. “UNRWA is the long-standing organization working on the ground in Gaza providing humanitarian aid, and we have a humanitarian crisis right now where babies and children are starving to death. It’s evil. It’s unacceptable.”

Feed the children

Judges at the International Court of Justice agree. On Wednesday, they unanimously ordered Israel to allow food shipments into Gaza to avoid the danger of immediate starvation.

“The court observes that Palestinians in Gaza are no longer facing only a risk of famine…but that famine is setting in,” read their edict. Their statement was the result of a request made by South Africa.

The same panel of justices is reviewing the genocide complaint against Israel; they already issued an emergency ruling requiring Israel to allow aid to pass in January. Though the decisions of the ICJ are legally binding, Israel ignores the court, and Tel Aviv’s close alliance with Washington means there is no way to force compliance.

In response to U.S. and Israeli moves to further squeeze Gaza, peace activists and Palestine solidarity groups have made “Save UNRWA” a second slogan for the ceasefire movement.

“Our U.S. government has not only been complicit in genocide but has become an active participant,” Ahmad Abuznaid of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights said.

Iman Abid, an organizer with USCPR, said:

“President Biden has worsened forced starvation in Gaza by cutting off funding to UNRWA…. Palestinian families have been forced to make meals with grass or animal feed to survive. Newborn babies are so weak and exhausted from malnutrition that they do not even have the energy to cry….

“It couldn’t be more obvious that Israel is weaponizing starvation and smearing the largest aid agency present to kill as many Palestinians as possible.”

Mass ceasefire demonstrations are expected again this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix, San Diego, Atlanta, Cleveland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and dozens of other U.S. cities.

Leaders in the Palestinian-American community are encouraging demonstrators to add increased food aid and the restoration of funding to UNRWA to the demands they make at rallies and in contacts with members of Congress.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.