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The U.S. is no longer just complicit in the devastation of Gaza. It’s a participant in it.

There is no logical nor moral case for meting out collective punishment by defunding Gaza's primary lifeline.

President Joe Biden signed a spending package Saturday that includes a provision that cuts off funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East through March 2025. Described by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “the backbone of all humanitarian responses in Gaza,” UNRWA, the chief organization for distributing food and aid in Gaza, relies heavily on U.S. funding. The group says that being denied U.S. money will drastically reduce its ability to feed and care for besieged Gazans? — just as the enclave is facing famine because of Israel's blockade.?

By sending Israel money and weapons that it has used to indiscriminately attack Gaza, the U.S. has already been complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. But the U.S. is now worse than an accomplice. Cutting off money to Gaza’s primary lifeline makes the U.S. an active participant in a regime of collective punishment imposed upon one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

No sensible person would seek to instantly defund a hospital and shutter its life-saving services because a doctor was accused of committing a crime.

Initially, the U.S.announced it was temporarily suspending funding to UNRWA in January after Israel accused at least 12 of UNRWA’s more than 13,000 employees of participating in the Oct. 7 attacks. UNRWA responded by firing 10 of the accused staffers and said two were confirmed dead. The U.N. has launched an internal investigation based on Israel’s claims and has promised to refer suspects of the investigation for criminal prosecution if the claims are true. An initial report is expected in the coming weeks. NBC News has obtained an Israeli security dossier that names the 12 accused staffers, but it has not verified their identities or the veracity of the dossier’s claims. Israel has not publicly disclosed evidence that supports its allegations.?

The spending package Biden signed Saturday to keep the U.S. government funded extends the suspension of UNRWA funding for at least a year. Republicans pushed for including the UNRWA defunding provision in the spending package, and though some Democrats criticized it as reckless and inhumane, there was no major showdown between the parties over the measure. Biden issued no objections to it. Before it passed he signaled to Congress that he would sign the spending package containing the UNRWA defunding measure “颈尘尘别诲颈补迟别濒测” if it reached his desk in order to avert a government shutdown — which it did with bipartisan support.?

It is difficult to overstate how indefensible this policy is. Israel’s claims about the UNRWA workers have not been corroborated, but even if those claims are true and some tiny percentage of UNRWA staffers participated in the Oct. 7 attacks, defunding UNRWA is unjustified. UNRWA is one of the largest employers in Gaza, and most of its 13,000 employees are local Palestinians. It is plausible that some staffers participated in the attacks, and they should be held accountable if they did. But not even their guilt would justify punishing millions of civilians in Gaza who depend on UNRWA’s services to survive. No sensible person would seek to instantly defund a hospital and shutter its life-saving services because a doctor was accused of committing a crime outside of the hospital. But that’s what cutting off funding to UNRWA is like.

Some proponents of defunding UNRWA have tried to argue that the money can be rerouted through other U.N. agencies or aid groups. But as the U.N. and regional experts have pointed out, there is no way to replace UNRWA overnight — especially not during a humanitarian catastrophe and as Gaza stands on the brink of the most intense famine since World War II. UNRWA offers state-like services to the residents of Gaza; it has thousands of staffers operating hundreds of installations across the territory where it delivers food, medical services and education. UNRWA’s institutional knowledge, infrastructure and local know-how cannot be instantly replaced by ad hoc operations or U.N. agencies with a more limited mandate.

The Biden administration’s efforts to try to compensate for cutting off money to UNRWA have been far from promising. The U.S.’s airdrops of food and supplies have distributed only a tiny fraction of the food that Gaza needs to survive, and appear to be a primarily symbolic gesture. Some airdropped packages have even landed on Gazans and killed them. And experts on humanitarian aid to the area say the the U.S.’s announcement that it will build a temporary seaport to increase the amount of aid entering Gaza will take a long time to begin running, and is likely for some time to be far less efficient than using land crossings that Israel refuses to open up enough to allow a sufficient amount of food and aid in.?

The preposterousness of defunding UNRWA is apparent to mainstream politicians who are far from radical. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in March that “there’s no doubt that the claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu and others are making, that somehow UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat-out lies.” Van Hollen added: “If you look at the person who’s in charge of operations on the ground in Gaza for UNRWA, it’s about a 20-year U.S. Army veteran. You can be sure he is not in cahoots with Hamas. Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA since at least 2017.”

In addition to being immoral, defunding UNRWA will likely prove to be a strategic misstep. As UNRWA sheds jobs and more people starve, misery will breed more radicalism, militant groups will angle to step into the vacuum, and the cycle of rage and retribution will continue.?

When Israel accused UNRWA staffers of participating in Oct. 7, a number of other countries followed the U.S.’ example and suspended funds to UNRWA. But Canada, Australia, Sweden and Finland have since resumed their funding. The U.S. has gone the opposite way, extending the defunding policy at precisely the time that the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification says a famine is imminent. The U.S. is losing whatever shreds of credibility it had left after trying to argue that it could not prevent Israel from using excessive force and putting indiscriminate pressure on civilians through supply cut-offs. By cutting off UNRWA, the U.S. is now operating hand-in-hand with Israel to punish innocents.

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