US Congress spending plan backs Israel, extends anti-AIDS program

By Thomson Reuters Mar 21, 2024 | 1:40 PM

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Foreign policy provisions in the $1.2 trillion spending plan unveiled by U.S. congressional leaders on Thursday included billions of dollars in military spending, concessions to Israel and a long-awaited extension of PEPFAR, a life-saving program to fight AIDS.

As Reuters reported on Tuesday, the State Department appropriations bill continues a ban on U.S. funding for UNRWA, the main U.N. agency for Palestinians, for at least a year. It also eliminates funding for the UN Commission of Inquiry against Israel and fully funds the annual U.S. security commitment of $3.3 billion for Israel.

President Joe Biden’s administration said in January it was temporarily pausing new funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after Israel accused 12 of the agency’s 13,000 employees in Gaza of participating in the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Backers of the aid have been trying to get it restored, calling on Washington to support the relief body as relief groups work to ward off famine in Gaza.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who has argued that UNRWA remains essential to save lives, said the decision was “unconscionable,” given the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

“UNWRA is the primary means of distributing desperately-needed assistance in Gaza – so denying funding for UNRWA is tantamount to denying food to starving people and restricting medical supplies to injured civilians,” he said in a statement.

The State Department funding bill also includes a one-year reauthorization of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR began in 2003 under Republican President George W. Bush and enjoyed bipartisan support until recently. The program was renewed 5-1/2 years ago by unanimous consent – with no objections from either Republicans or Democrats.

But this year, Republican opponents of abortion rights came out against a five-year reauthorization. Advocates say PEPFAR does not fund or provide abortion services and that none of its money goes directly or indirectly to fund abortion services.

The State Department says more than $100 billion has been spent on the global HIV/AIDS response through the program, which has saved 25 million lives.

The Defense Appropriations bill covers a record $886 billion in annual military spending, which was authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, passed last year.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)