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As Gaza Faces Famine, Israel Cuts Ties with UNRWA and U.S. Halts Funding for Critical Aid Agency

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Despite a U.N.-backed report sounding the alarm on imminent famine in northern Gaza, Israeli authorities announced Sunday they will no longer approve the passage of any UNRWA food convoys into northern Gaza. “Our ability to adequately continue saving lives is really being obstructed,” says UNRWA spokesperson Tamara Alrifai. “What’s going to happen to UNRWA if we can no longer truly operate?” The decision came as President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion appropriations bill that strips funding to UNRWA for the next year. The U.S. first suspended aid to UNRWA in late January, when the Israeli government claimed 12 of the agency’s 30,000 employees were involved in Hamas’s attacks on October 7. The unsubstantiated allegation prompted top donors to cut funding to UNRWA, though many of them have resumed funding as the agency welcomes new donor countries and an unprecedented number of civil society donations. Seeing the U.S., the agency’s largest donor, “withhold funding … is a huge blow to us,” says Alrifai. “Stripping UNRWA of funding not only shrinks its ability to respond to the looming famine in Gaza, but also puts at risk the schools, the access of kids to proper education, the vaccines, the mother and child care — everything across the region.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Despite a U.N.-backed report that found famine is imminent in northern Gaza, Israeli authorities informed the United Nations on Sunday that it will no longer approve the passage of any UNRWA food convoys into northern Gaza. This is Israeli spokesperson David Mencer speaking to reporters on Monday.

DAVID MENCER: UNRWA are part of the problem, and we will now stop working with them. We are phasing — we are actively phasing out the use of UNRWA, because they perpetuate the conflict rather than try and alleviate the conflict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In response to the news, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini wrote in a social media post, quote, “This is outrageous & makes it intentional to obstruct lifesaving assistance during a man made famine. These restrictions must be lifted. UNRWA is the largest organisation with the highest reach to displaced communities in Gaza. By preventing UNRWA to fulfill its mandate in Gaza, the clock will tick faster towards famine & many more will die of hunger, dehydration + lack of shelter,” he wrote.

AMY GOODMAN: The decision came as President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion appropriations bill that strips funding to UNRWA for the next year. The U.S. first suspended aid to UNRWA in late January when the Israeli government leveled allegations that 12 of the agency’s 30,000 employees were involved in the Hamas attacks of October 7th. The unsubstantiated allegation prompted other top donors, such as Germany, the European Union and Sweden, to cut funding to UNRWA, although a number of countries have recently announced their intention to resume funding.

For more, we go to Amman, Jordan, where we’re joined by Tamara Alrifai. She’s spokesperson for the U.N. Palestinian agency, UNRWA.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tamara. If you can start off by talking about the significance of what the U.S. has done? President Biden signed off on a bipartisan law that dealt with a lot of issues, but among them, cutting off aid to UNRWA for the next year, and the U.S. is by far the largest funder of this U.N. Palestinian relief agency.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Thanks, Amy. And thanks, as always, for giving UNRWA this platform.

The decision by Congress, and consequently by the U.S. government, to stop funding to UNRWA this year is a huge blow. There is no sugarcoating. The impact on our finances is huge, and also the impact on the politics around UNRWA. Seeing our largest donor, and many times our closest partner, withhold funding, which means withhold trust to UNRWA, is a huge blow to us.

However, I also want to say that, in parallel, several governments, European and non-European, have either much increased their funding to UNRWA or have given us money for the first time. Also, we are getting overwhelming individual support, donations from $10 to $20,000, to our campaigns and our drives. And that speaks for a sentiment that is also galvanizing around UNRWA around its role, and mostly around the fact that it is not possible to just decide to pull the plug on a U.N. agency. Any change to the way a U.N. agency works, especially as UNRWA gets its mandate from the U.N. General Assembly, should be discussed at the General Assembly. It is not about one or two U.N. member states to decide whether UNRWA can continue working or not. This is a global decision, and the General Assembly is where we get an overwhelming vote of support. And that is where such a conversation should take place.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tamara, could you talk about the countries that had previously rescinded funding to UNRWA and may now — have either resumed it or intend to resume it?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Yes, I can talk about a few countries that just over the last few days made their contributions to UNRWA — Germany, for example, which, by the way, had not really suspended its funding. It just took a little bit of a pause to think. And they just announced — Germany just announced $45 million in income to UNRWA just in the last few days. The same, Canada, Australia, Sweden and a number of other countries that had initially withheld their funding to UNRWA following these allegations around 12 of 13,000 staff members in Gaza, now are releasing their funding.

But I also want to talk about the role of Ireland or Spain, both of them having much increased their funding to UNRWA and also their political support. The European Union, our second-largest donor as a group, did release the large part of its funding to UNRWA. And also, countries like Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and, just today, Kuwait, all of them are supporting UNRWA. And again, income from private sources, from individuals and foundations, has skyrocketed since the beginning of this year, especially now during Ramadan, where many Muslims around the world are looking for a zakat-friendly way, so a way to donate as per Islamic Sharia law. We have this mechanism, and many, many Muslims from around the world, from Malaysia to Indonesia to Singapore, are donating to UNRWA.

AMY GOODMAN: Canada, as well, hasn’t it, said it’s restoring UNRWA aid?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Sweden, you said? I couldn’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: Canada?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Oh, yes, Canada did restore its funding. Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, if you could say — also speak, Tamara, about the fact that Israel has now said it will no longer approve any UNRWA food convoys to the north? What are the implications of that?

TAMARA ALRIFAI: The implications are huge. In the last few days alone, we received five denials to our requests to move food from the south of the Gaza Strip in Rafah to the north. Now, we’ve also — so, we consider this to be a ban on UNRWA’s food distribution in the north. The commissioner-general of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, was also denied access to Gaza two weeks ago, despite having followed the usual procedures to ask for him and his delegation to go into Gaza.

What we’re truly seeing here is the space around UNRWA in Gaza is really shrinking, and our ability to adequately continue saving lives is really being obstructed. We’re talking here about food distribution to an entire population that is food insecure. “Food insecure,” in layman, laywoman terms, means people are hungry. Half of that population no longer has access to any food. There’s nothing in their pantries. Seventy-five percent or more of the population is displaced. Most of these people displaced are now in Rafah, which has witnessed a sixfold increase in the population. Many of these people are in UNRWA shelters, where they do receive food, vaccines and medical treatment. And many, many of them are in tents in Rafah. When I last was in Gaza, what I saw in Rafah was an immense tented community out in the open. Many people have gathered around UNRWA shelters, hoping they would receive some of the aid that UNRWA distributes. What’s going to happen to UNRWA if we can no longer truly operate?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of independent Senator Bernie Sanders. You know, this was a $1.2 trillion appropriations bill that keeps the government open through October, but it includes stripping funding to UNRWA. The bill vote, 74 to 24. Bernie Sanders voted “no” because of the stripping of funding to UNRWA.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Tens of thousands of people are starving. UNRWA is trying to feed them. And the Israeli government and its allies, like AIPAC, spend much of their time lobbying to defund UNRWA, the major organization which is feeding starving people. Sadly, tragically, many members of Congress seem to be happy to be part of this starvation caucus.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Tamara Alrifai, if you can respond? And also the fact that the 30,000-member agency UNRWA is not just supporting the people who face famine in Gaza, but also throughout the Middle East. We’re talking about Lebanon and Jordan.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: That’s a great — 

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: — point. That’s a great point, Amy, to remind that UNRWA is the agency that is fully in charge of Palestine refugees, from registering them and their descendants, to offering a very sturdy education system to them through 700 schools, to offering all primary healthcare. So, stripping UNRWA of funding not only shrinks its ability to respond to the looming famine in Gaza, but also puts at risk the schools, the access of kids to proper education, the vaccines, the mother and child care — everything, across the region — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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Report from Rafah: UNICEF Decries Israel’s “War on Children” as Starvation & Deaths Mount in Gaza

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