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War on Gaza: After Unrwa cuts, congressional staffers organise Gaza fundraiser

The fundraiser, set to take place next week, will raise money for humanitarian aid to Gaza and for Israeli hostages held in the enclave
Demonstrators gather for an anti-war demonstration hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace near the US Capitol in Washington DC on 18 October 2023 (Bryan Olin Dozier/Reuters)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

After the Biden administration abruptly suspended funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), amid congressional calls for that aid to be permanently stopped, a group of appalled staffers on Capitol Hill have taken matters into their own hands.

Rather than following their bosses in Congress or agreeing to the administration's aid suspension, staffers are organising a fundraiser next week in DC to help raise money for humanitarian assistance in Gaza, as well as for organisations working to free the remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza.

The fundraiser will take place next Thursday. Organisers also plan to create a GoFundMe page and open up their fundraising efforts to the public.

"We feel like we have a responsibility to do more when you see our members and our president and the administration refusing to do so," an organiser with Congressional Staff for Ceasefire Now said in a phone interview with MEE.

"While we're obviously not going to be able to raise the millions of dollars, or the billions of dollars, that Congress could appropriate for this aid, we can certainly do our part and make our splash."

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On 27 January, the Biden administration announced it would be suspending funding to Unrwa, after Israel alleged that 12 members of the agency played a role in the 7 October attacks led by Hamas.

'We feel like we have a responsibility to do more when you see our president and the administration refusing to do so'

- Congressional Staff for Ceasefire Now

Several other western countries followed suit, leaving the main organisation used to facilitate aid deliveries for Gaza's residents with little funds to continue operating under what were already harsh and difficult conditions.

Still, many members of Congress are calling on the administration to go further on its suspension of funding to Unrwa, and to outright ban assistance altogether. Nearly a quarter of senators signed a letter stating that there should be a permanent halt to Unrwa assistance.

And Senate legislation unveiled this week showed Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as President Biden, agreed that no money should be diverted to Unrwa, a move that would force the US to reverse its role as Unrwa's chief donor.

The State Department has said that if such a bill passes, the administration would divert any Unrwa funding to other agencies working in Gaza.

Raising awareness

The organiser with Staffers for a Ceasefire told MEE that the event is a part of the group's months-long efforts to raise awareness and push for a ceasefire, but putting together this fundraiser was in direct response to the move to suspend funding to Unrwa.

"The real impetus was seeing the defunding of Unrwa a week or two ago and just seeing how even at a time when humanitarian aid is in need more than ever, we are seeing our government step back and be less willing to provide that," the organiser said.

"We're seeing our bosses really abdicate their responsibility."

The Hamas-led attacks on 7 October killed 1,139 people in Israel, according to a tally by AFP using social security data.

At least 240 people were also taken hostage, and after one captive exchange back in November, more than 100 remain held in Gaza, while dozens have reportedly died.

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Israel responded immediately to the attacks with an indiscriminate aerial bombardment campaign, followed by a ground invasion that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians, targeted civilian infrastructure, and attacked UN shelters.

The death toll of Palestinians in Gaza has surpassed 27,800 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, and has prompted calls for courts to hold Israel liable for committing genocide - a charge Israel denies.

The fundraiser is the latest action by the group of staffers, who have been advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza for months now.

In November, the group organised a vigil for all of the people killed in the conflict at the time, laying down 10,000 carnations to symbolise all the lives lost.

They have also been present at many of the mass pro-Palestine rallies taking place in the nation's capital.

Over the past few months, congressional staffers have shared with Middle East Eye their disappointment with Washington's continued and unfettering support for the war in Gaza.

"I grew up as someone who always wanted to do politics, and so I would always hear that you should stand up for what you believe. So now that we're doing that, the fact that we have to be concerned about losing our jobs, I can be sued, all these threats. It just makes life really awkward in the office," a congressional staffer previously told MEE.

"I don't even know if I want to return to the Hill. It's just a very weird feeling."

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