House Democrats press key GOP senator to release hold on aid to Palestinians

A large group of House Democrats on Wednesday pressed Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to lift his hold on aid to Palestinians after a brutal war in the Gaza Strip decimated the coastal enclave.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.) led a group of 145 Democrats in calling on Risch to lift a hold on millions in aid that was approved under the Trump administration.

A congressional aide said that an informal hold placed in April by Risch and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, currently impacts approximately $50 million out of $360 million in assistance announced by the Biden administration to the Palestinians.

“We write with a great sense of urgency to respectfully request that you release your hold on tens of millions of dollars in appropriated humanitarian aid that is so desperately needed to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians rebuilding their lives in the wake of the fighting between Hamas and Israel earlier this month,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote.

“Gaza is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe. Buildings lie in rubble. Access to clean water and electricity is sporadic or nonexistent. Food insecurity is spreading. COVID-19 is running rampant and thousands of people have been displaced and rendered homeless. The magnitude of the crisis is staggering.” 

The Biden administration has said the funds will go toward assisting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip grapple with the coronavirus and a flagging economy as well as rebuild from the recent war between Israel and militants in Gaza.

The push for aid from the Democrats comes as a cease-fire reached last month has so far managed to hold. While some Republicans have expressed concerns that aid to Palestinians could make its way to Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, the Democrats said that the money would be tightly monitored. 

“As the ceasefire takes hold, the United States can help relieve the suffering of countless innocent civilians. The assistance aid notified by the State Department is to be provided in full accordance with U.S. law. It is administered and overseen by our government and by trusted and vetted partners on the ground. Secretary [of State] Antony Blinken has made clear that Hamas and other terrorist groups will not benefit from our humanitarian assistance,” they wrote.

The hold applies to U.S. assistance through the Economic Support Fund for Palestinians, which provides economic and development assistance, and that is subject to compliance with the Taylor Force Act.

The law, signed in 2018, prohibits American funds being distributed to the Palestinian Authority unless the State Department can certify that the P.A. has ceased payments to the families of Palestinians in Israeli jails or killed while carrying out alleged terrorist activities, dubbed the “pay-to-slay” program.

The State Department says that U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza is delivered through trusted and vetted humanitarian organizations in compliance with federal law.

A spokeswoman for Risch responded to a request for comment from The Hill, disputing the House letter and maintaining that the Republicans’ hold is not impacting humanitarian aid.

“Humanitarian assistance is not subject to congressional notification and holds. Senator Risch remains in close contact with the State Department and USAID to ensure that any additional Palestinian initiatives are compliant with U.S. law, to include the Taylor Force Act,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Hill.

“While the PA and [Palestinian Liberation Organization] continue to promote violence through the pay to slay program, the ranking member will continue to provide rigorous oversight of taxpayer dollars to ensure this money does not benefit terrorists,” the spokeswoman continued.

President Biden has already voiced support for delivering aid to both Israel and the Palestinians, saying he intends to replenish funds for Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system as well as boost the recovery efforts in Gaza.

Updated: 5:55 p.m.

Tags Antony Blinken Gaza Strip Gaza Strip aid Gaza–Israel conflict Hamas Jamie Raskin Jim Risch Joe Biden Michael McCaul
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