Biden’s UNRWA aid suspension is an attack on women

A group of children pose for the camera

Displaced children in an UNRWA camp in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, on 29 January. 

Omar Ashtawy APA images

Since the 26 January landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Israel has a “plausible” genocide case to answer, Washington found a convenient target to divert attention: the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

The Biden administration had already dismissed South Africa’s case at the ICJ as meritless before the ruling. It rejected the ICJ’s findings as “unfounded” after.

But the administration immediately suspended funding to UNRWA over Israeli allegations it admitted it had not investigated that 12 agency employees were involved in the 7 October attacks.

Washington’s decision was quickly followed by 17 other countries, mostly America’s closest allies.

Mainstream media outlets were quick to repeat Israel’s allegations while diminishing the ICJ ruling. Most reports also ignored that the information was likely obtained under torture and that Israel has killed 154 UN staff members in Gaza to date.

UNRWA is the main source for education and health care services as well as food relief for 1.4 million refugees in Gaza. In response to the Biden administration’s announcement, Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, explained that “lives of people in Gaza depend” on UNRWA support.

“As the war continues, needs are deepening and famine looms,” Lazzarini added. “Palestinians in Gaza did not need this additional collective punishment. This stains all of us.”


Pro-Israel members of the US Congress quickly seized on the allegations to demonize UNRWA and Palestinians.

On 30 January, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability in the House of Representatives held a hearing in which opponents of UNRWA relentlessly criticized the organization as well as the Palestinian refugees it serves. By the end of the week, competing legislation in the US Senate and House of Representatives proposed to end US funding for the agency.

Senators Tim Scott and Ted Cruz introduced a bill that would end US donations to the UN until UNRWA is disbanded. A related bill sponsored by Cruz and Tom Cotton would end UNRWA-USA’s tax exempt status and block non-immigrant visas for UNRWA officials and employees.

A combined bill of aid to Ukraine and Israel with restrictions on immigration the US also contained a provision that blocked funding to UNRWA. Although the bill failed to achieve the necessary votes, pro-Israel members of Congress will likely incorporate it into future legislation.

UNRWA has been faced with budget shortfalls and enforced austerity that have limited its services for over a decade. During this period, living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza and for Palestinian refugees in UNRWA’s areas of service, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, have deteriorated to the extent that refugees suffer widespread food insecurity.

Well before 7 October, UNRWA was repeatedly targeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allies in the US Congress. The most recent attempt was last summer, when Republicans in the Senate and House blocked funding to UNRWA until the agency met certain conditions.

Such attempts have only increased since 7 October. In early January, Noga Arbell, a former Israeli foreign ministry official, told Israel’s parliament that it “will be impossible to win the war if we do not destroy UNRWA, and this destruction must begin immediately.”

The Biden administration and members of Congress have endorsed this goal.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admitted that the United States had yet to review Israel’s allegations, but deemed them “highly, highly credible.”

Within a few days, however, they quickly collapsed. Although Israel initially claimed 12 UNRWA staffers were involved in the 7 October attack, it was eventually reduced to six.

Britain’s Sky News reviewed the intelligence dossier provided to the United States and other countries. It determined that the documents “make several claims that Sky News has not seen proof of and many of the claims, even if true, do not directly implicate UNRWA.”

This finding was confirmed by the UK’s Channel 4, which reported that Israel’s dossier “was just six pages long,” and did not contain evidence to support its claims.

UNRWA’s Philippe Lazzarini told the Financial Times that the agency had yet to receive Israel’s evidence.

Biden not budging

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has not budged. Although the White House has expressed concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby declared that suspending funding was “the right thing to do” until the investigation was complete.

And the State Department continues to insist that the ICJ’s finding of “plausible genocide” in Gaza is “unfounded.”

The Biden administration has also ignored the detailed accounts by UN bodies of the desperate situation in Gaza in which women and children have borne the brunt of the assault.

On 9 October, Israel imposed a complete blockade on the Gaza Strip that prevented the entry of food supplies and cut off electricity, fuel and drinking water. It launched an indiscriminate campaign of air strikes followed by a ground invasion that has significantly damaged vital civilian infrastructure and reduced homes, places of worship, and public facilities to mountains of rubble.

According to UN Women, families in Gaza have lost two mothers every hour. Nearly 3,000 women have lost their husbands and become heads of households.

More than 100,000 Palestinians have been killed, injured or are missing.

Some 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced since 7 October and are residing in or around the 154 UNRWA facilities in Gaza.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that since the start of the Israeli air strikes, Gaza has witnessed nearly 20,000 births under bombing in Gaza in disastrous health conditions. Following Israel’s false claims about Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, medical facilities have been heavily damaged and personnel have been killed, wounded, and imprisoned.

Israel has also impeded access to life-saving aid.

“Women in Gaza have told us that they are praying for peace, but if peace is not achieved, their prayer is for a quick death, while they sleep, with their children in their arms,” Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, said in a briefing to the UN Security Council as far back as November. “We should all be ashamed that any mother, anywhere, is forced to make such prayers.”

Existential crisis

Before the Israeli invasion, Palestinians in Gaza suffered from various health problems, including malnutrition, anemia and weak immunity. As much as 70 percent of children in Gaza were thus affected.

After 7 October, this percentage has increased to more than 90 percent.

In an interview in January on CNN, Deborah Harrington, a British obstetrician who volunteered for 14 days in central Gaza’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, declared herself “ashamed and shocked by what is happening there.”

Harrington pointed out that none of the pregnant women she met during her visit to Gaza had seen an obstetrician since the beginning of the war. Nor had they received specialized care for pregnant women.

Most of them suffer from severe anemia, which is dangerous when combined with pregnancy, injuries and a lack of access to health care services.

Tess Ingram, spokeswoman for UNICEF, recently returned from Gaza. She recounted her experience in the Emirati hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza, in a 19 January press conference.

“Seeing newborns suffer, while some mothers bleed to death, should keep us all awake at night,” Ingram said.

After more than 120 days of war, the situation has become increasingly dire, including a risk of widespread famine if Israel continues to restrict aid access. Even though hundreds of trucks carrying food, medicine supplies and lifesaving aid are waiting at the Rafah border crossing, Israel has prevented the entry of many.

The Biden administration claims it supports human rights and women’s rights around the world, but its policies toward Palestinians in Gaza have demonstrated the opposite. Not only has Washington dismissed the ICJ’s initial determination, it is now targeting a UN agency actively providing humanitarian services in a conflict zone while preventing a ceasefire.

Leading UN experts have warned that the situation is now an existential crisis for Palestinians in Gaza.

The damage of Biden’s actions and inaction to America’s reputation and Palestinian lives will be permanent.

Dalal Yassine is a non-resident fellow with the Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Center in Washington, DC. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.