After President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will send $100 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza and the West Bank, critics countered the plan would ultimately help the Hamas leaders who, on Oct. 7, launched surprise attacks in Israel that killed 1,400 people.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., called the idea of giving aid to Gaza “crazy” while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis predicted that Hamas would commandeer the money and use it for terrorism. “I say no U.S. tax dollars to the Gaza Strip,” DeSantis said.
The U.S. effort seeks to distinguish between helping the people who live in Gaza and helping Hamas, the political and military organization that governs Gaza — a group that the U.S. State Department in 1997 labeled a terrorist organization.
How feasible is it to get aid to civilians without helping Hamas?
Experts on humanitarian aid told PolitiFact that it is achievable but challenging.
“The consideration right now has to balance the dire needs of civilians and the chance that the terrorist group controlling the territory will also gain some benefit,” said Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “In a crisis like this, it cannot be a zero sum game in either direction.”
Many of the more than 2 million people who live in Gaza are facing shortages of food, water and basic supplies. As it planned counterattacks, Israel warned residents of north Gaza to evacuate. The United Nations has said 5,000 have been killed in Gaza, citing “reports from de facto authorities there.”
Biden’s Oct. 18 announcement said that the U.S. funding would provide water, food, medicine and other essential needs, focusing especially on the 1 million Palestinians who have been told to leave northern Gaza.
The $100 million will come from previously approved funds, so implementing the plan won’t require further action by Congress. The administration has proposed a separate $9.15 billion humanitarian aid package for civilians in Gaza, Israel and Ukraine, without specifying how much will go to Gaza. This aid would require approval from Congress.
Many questions remain about the aid for Gaza, including when the House — which for now lacks a speaker — will be in a position to vote on the funding package.
Here’s what we know about U.S. aid to Gaza.
The U.S. has given aid to Palestinians since 1950
After the 1948 war that solidified Israel’s independence, the United Nations formed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA. The agency’s services encompass education, health care, relief and social services, refugee camp infrastructure and improvement, microfinance, and emergency assistance.
The agency is funded by UN members, including the United States, which has given money since 1950. This includes aid to both Gaza and the West Bank.
Over the past two decades, the only gap in funding came during the Donald Trump administration, which eliminated funding for UNRWA.
The Biden administration renewed funding in 2021. The U.S. also provides aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza improves the quality of life for the Palestinian people, the State Department said in 2023. Past administrations have used similar arguments to justify U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, before Hamas took control of Gaza, “major construction projects were implemented in Gaza, including a major reservoir and water management effort,” Larry Garber, who was USAID’s mission director from 1999 to 2004, told PolitiFact.
After the takeover by Hamas in 2007, the U.S. government “has been unable to engage directly” with the government of Gaza “but has continued to implement programs there through contractors and non-governmental organizations, while ensuring that no assistance benefits Hamas.”
The goal is to get aid to civilians
For now, aid can only arrive through the Rafah crossing at Gaza’s border with Egypt, because Israel has sealed its border as it pursues its military response to the Oct. 7 attacks.
Topher McDougal, professor of economic development and peacebuilding at the University of San Diego, predicted in The Conversation that the aid to Gaza would likely be delivered through a network of UNRWA-supported hospitals and schools, which are now serving as shelters for people displaced by Israeli airstrikes.
Biden and Republicans agree that no U.S. aid should benefit Hamas.
Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson, said in an Oct. 19 press briefing that the U.S. and Israel share “a legitimate concern” that Hamas will divert the aid and added that the U.S. is “going to be watching very carefully how it’s delivered.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Oct. 11 on CBS “Face the Nation,” “We want to make sure we’re not sending money to Hamas.” He added, “There are genuine humanitarian needs of the people in Gaza who are not Hamas, who’ve been thrown under the bus by what Hamas did.”
Some Republican senators took a more aggressive stance, introducing a bill to cut off funding for the U.N. to aid Gaza. Some Republicans have cited part of a 2021 State Department memo that says there is “high risk Hamas could potentially derive indirect, unintentional benefit from U.S. assistance to Gaza.” The memo was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative outlet, through a records request.
However, the memo also cites the West Bank and Gaza mission of the USAID in saying that “there have been no known cases of U.S. government or other donor supplies or equipment being stolen or destroyed” and that the State Department believes it is in the U.S. national security interest to provide the aid.
Biden hinted that the U.S. could cut off aid if Hamas seized it, saying on Oct. 20, “If Hamas does not divert or steal these shipments, we’re going to provide an opening for sustained delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians.”
How challenging is the goal of keeping aid away from Hamas?
U.S. restrictions on aid and Hamas are tough, but not perfect, experts said.
Like the European Union and other nations that have counterterrorism laws, the U.S. takes measures to verify that funds and materials are provided to non-terrorist entities and are not diverted to support terrorist organizations, said Chen Reis, director of the humanitarian assistance program at the University of Denver.
These rules are “very stringent,” said Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor who studies Middle Eastern law and politics.
One way to minimize “leakage” to Hamas is for representatives of the humanitarian groups to be present as the goods are distributed, said Michael Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University. Another is to deliver aid to refugee camps that have been demilitarized, he said.
In addition, third-party organizations “watch very carefully,” with pro-Israel groups ready to file lawsuits against aid organizations if they violate counterterrorism laws, Barnett said.
Still, with Hamas exercising pervasive control in Gaza, any aid transaction inevitably faces some interaction with Hamas.
Garber, the former USAID official, said he feels confident that U.S. assistance funds have not directly benefited Hamas over the years, but said it is hard to police “incidental benefits.” For example, U.S. dollars have supported roads and other infrastructure that Hamas has been able to use, too.
McDougal said humanitarian aid workers inevitably need to contend with tradeoffs as they balance working with local authorities to gain access to help civilians. “Hamas has repeatedly flouted international norms and laws,” McDougal wrote in The Conversation essay. “So the question of if and how the aid convoy will be protected looms large.”
Because helping the people of Gaza inevitably means going through the tight control of Hamas, “you can try all you want to hermetically seal that aid so Hamas’ fingerprints are not on it, but there will always be limitations,” Barnett said. “The hope is that it’s always limited.”
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