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‘Moral failure’: US House approves bill that would ban UNRWA funding

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Washington, DC – The United States House of Representatives has approved a $1.2 trillion funding bill that would ban funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) amid the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

The measure, which passed in a 286 to 134 vote on Friday, would keep the government fully functioning in advance of a partial shutdown deadline.

The proposed legislation now goes to the Senate, which must pass it by midnight on Friday, when several government agencies would start running out of money. President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill into law immediately, if the Democratic-controlled upper chamber of Congress passes the legislation as expected.

The measure faced opposition from dozens of far-right Republicans, who argued that it does not curb government spending enough. After the vote, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a motion to remove House Speaker Mike Johnson from his post for his endorsement of the bipartisan spending deal; 22 Democrats, many of whom had expressed concerns about the UNRWA provision, joined Republicans in opposing the plan.

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), called the passage of the bill “an incredible moral failure”.

“Our political process has chosen to cut US funding to literally the only entity that can address the level of suffering and scale of suffering that’s happening in Gaza right now,” Berry told Al Jazeera.

Looming Gaza famine

The bill comes as the United Nations has been warning of the growing risk of famine in Gaza amid the Israeli blockade. Gaza officials have said that many children have already died of dehydration and starvation over the past month.

Several progressives had slammed the ban on US aid to UNRWA, which provides vital services on the ground to Palestinians in Gaza and across the Middle East.

In a speech on the House floor on Thursday, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib accused Israel of committing “some of the most horrific crimes against humanity” in this century.

“The Israeli government has been intentionally starving the Palestinian people,” she said.

Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, added that UNRWA is the “major organisation that provides desperately needed food and humanitarian assistance to starving Palestinians”.

“Members here – all of them – are now going to be contributing to the starvation of Palestinian families,” she said.

Senator Chris Van Hollen also decried the looming ban, expressing disappointment and frustration at the measure.

“UNRWA 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,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

“It also means cutting support for services – including schooling and healthcare – for over a million Palestinians in the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.”

Van Hollen did not say whether he would vote against the bill. Last month, the senator voted in favour of proposed legislation that would provide $14bn in additional aid to Israel and defund UNRWA, despite his criticism of the war on Gaza and advocacy for the UN agency.

Israel had accused UNRWA of ties to Hamas – allegations rejected by the agency and major humanitarian groups.

Earlier this year, the Israeli government said around a dozen UNRWA employees took part in Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel. UNRWA opened a probe into the allegations. The UN also appointed an independent panel to review the agency.

The Israeli accusations prompted more than a dozen Western countries, led by the US, to pause aid to UNRWA.

But in a report seen by many media outlets last month, UNRWA said Israeli forces tortured several of its staff members in Gaza to get them to admit to links to Hamas.

Many of the countries that had paused their assistance to UNRWA, including Canada and Australia, resumed the funding in the past weeks. But the Biden administration has continued to withhold the funds.

Palestinian refugees

On Thursday, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described the de-funding of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees as “unconscionable”.

“It’s also not grounded in sound facts,” she said. “We have intelligence assessments that speak to this and I find it highly political.”

The US funding bill includes other pro-Israel measures, including strict restrictions on US humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

Berry, of AAI, said it was important to put the looming ban in the context of the broader, years-long Israeli efforts to deligitimise UNRWA.

The UN agency provides healthcare and education amongst other essential services across the region to millions Palestinian refugees – people who were forcibly displaced from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel and their descendants.

Berry said while the defunding UNRWA during a starvation crisis in Gaza is “shocking”, the issue is even bigger than the aid to the Palestinian territory; it is part of the push to “erase Palestinian refugees”.

The White House, which is typically involved in setting the parameters of funding bills, has endorsed the proposed legislation, suggesting that Biden is on board with de-funding UNRWA.

“Biden administration policy since October 7 has been tragically flawed,” Berry told Al Jazeera. “And instead of course-correcting, instead of digging out the hole that they have placed the US in, and that has harmed the US world standing, they have not been able to actually pivot.”

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North Korea conducts test on new ‘super-large warhead’: State media

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Pyongyang says new warhead designed for cruise missiles, adding that a new anti-aircraft rocket was also tested.

North Korea has conducted a test on a “super-large warhead” designed for a strategic cruise missile, state media reports, adding that it also launched a new type of anti-aircraft missile.

“The DPRK Missile Administration has conducted a power test of a super-large warhead designed for ‘Hwasal-1 Ra-3’ strategic cruise missile”, KCNA news agency reported on Saturday, referring to North Korea by an abbreviation for its official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea also carried out a test launch on Friday afternoon of a “Pyoljji-1-2”, which state media said was a “new-type anti-aircraft missile”.

KCNA added that “a certain goal was attained” through the test without providing further details.

The weapons tests were part of the “regular activities of the administration and its affiliated defence science institutes”, KCNA reported, referencing the operation of “new-type weapon systems”.

The tests “had nothing to do with the surrounding situation”, KCNA added, but did not give any further information.

In early April, North Korea said it had tested a new medium-to-long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, with state media sharing a video of it being launched as leader Kim Jong Un looked on.

Cruise missiles are among a growing collection of North Korean weapons designed to overwhelm regional missile defences. They supplement the North’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental variants, which are said to be aimed at the continental United States.

Analysts say anti-aircraft missile technology is an area where North Korea could benefit from its deepening military cooperation with Russia, as the two countries align in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the US.

The US and South Korea have accused the North of providing artillery shells and other equipment to Russia to help extend its warfighting ability in Ukraine.

Since its second nuclear test in 2009, Pyongyang has been under heavy international sanctions, but the development of its nuclear and weapons programmes has continued unabated.

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Al Jazeera and news agencies

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Ecuador weighs security, international arbitration in latest referendum

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Quito, Ecuador – He was elected president at a time of crisis, as Ecuador’s murder rate skyrocketed and gang violence seeped across the country.

Now, Ecuadorian leader Daniel Noboa is taking a plan of action to the voters, with an 11-part referendum on Sunday.

The referendum includes a wide range of proposals, from the militarisation of Ecuador’s police to tougher punishments for crimes like drug trafficking, murder and money laundering.

But Sunday’s vote is set to go beyond beefed-up security practices. One question, for example, aims to reform the judiciary system. Another considers whether arbitration should be the default approach to settling international financial disputes.

Noboa has been pushing for Ecuadorians to vote in favour of all 11 ballot measures, in an effort to streamline the economy and stamp out gang violence.

“Voting yes will strengthen our laws and leave no opportunities for those criminals who wish to joke with our justice [system] with the help of corrupt lawmen,” Noboa said in a public event on Monday.

But the broad nature of the proposals has prompted concern, with critics wondering what the consequences could be for human rights, the economy and efforts to stabilise Ecuador’s security situation.

Some have even questioned whether the referendum reflects a shift towards the “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies popular in countries like El Salvador, where human rights organisations have warned of false imprisonment and a lack of due process.

Daniel Noboa speaks into a microphone.
Daniel Noboa has made the national security referendum a goal of his presidency [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Limited opposition

Still, only one major political group in the country has consistently called for Ecuadorians to vote “no” on all 11 ballot measures: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

The group has accused the government of exploiting the referendum to further Noboa’s political ambitions, as the country approaches its 2025 general election.

Noboa — a 36-year-old politician and heir to a banana industry fortune — was sworn in last November to serve an abbreviated 18-month term, after the departure of embattled President Guillermo Lasso. But he is widely expected to run for a full term in the next race.

In a virtual forum on April 11, CONAIE president Leonidas Iza called the referendum a chance for Noboa to rally support.

“The government needs to consolidate its strength to impose neoliberal policies,” Iza said.

Referendums, he added, are costly to organise, and he called for the policies to instead be considered in Ecuador’s National Assembly.

Another CONAIE leader, Agustin Cachipuendo, was later quoted in the newspaper El Universo as saying any repercussions from the vote would disproportionately fall on marginalised groups.

“This government does not know poverty [but] makes decisions that affect the poor,” he said.

Soldiers in fatigues and combat gear walk through fields in rural Ecuador.
Soldiers patrol during a presidential visit to dairy farms in Poalo, Ecuador, on March 21 [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Rallying public support

Nevertheless, the referendum enjoys relatively broad public support. According to the research institute Comunicaliza, 42.7 percent of voters plan to back Noboa’s proposals.

Still, another 27.5 percent said they have not made up their minds yet.

Maria, a 48-year-old resident of Guayaquil who asked to use a pseudonym for her safety, is among those supporting the president’s measures to tighten security in the country.

Her city has been at the forefront of the crisis. In January, for instance, a criminal group stormed a local TV station during a live broadcast and held employees at gunpoint, generating international outcry.

Maria explained she had been targeted by a criminal group herself: They blackmailed her by threatening her children. But she said she feels safer thanks to the state of emergency Noboa imposed in January, which allowed the military to be deployed to city streets.

“Policemen and soldiers have been patrolling the borough in these months, so we can finally sleep tight at night,” Maria told Al Jazeera.

She credits the soldiers with curbing the violence in her neighbourhood. The referendum could pave the way for the military to have a permanent role in policing, something Maria hopes will happen.

“If they will leave us, what happens then? This is what everyone is worried about,” she said.

A soldier stands in shadow in front of a row of orange-clad prisoners.
A soldier guards cell block 3 of the militarised Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on February 9 [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Searching for a permanent fix

Noboa’s government has argued that the referendum is a necessary step to curb the wave of violence that has rattled the country since 2018.

Declaring a state of emergency, officials argue, is only a temporary solution.

“The general purpose of the [referendum] is to establish some permanent mechanisms, breaking the cycle of enacting emergency decrees and then going back to business as usual,” said the government spokesperson Roberto Izurieta in an interview with local television station Teleamazonas.

The state of emergency granted the government additional powers, allowing officials to impose a curfew and take stronger action against gangs.

Under the state of emergency, for instance, Noboa’s government labelled 22 criminal groups as “terrorist” organisations, clearing the way for the police and military to focus extra resources towards combatting them.

Security forces also seized 77 tonnes of drugs and detained 18,736 people, 300 of whom have since been accused of terrorism. According to the authorities, violent deaths have reduced by 26 percent since Noboa took office.

But in early April, the state of emergency came to an end. Ferdinando Carrion, a security expert, believes some of the reforms in the referendum could help Noboa to continue his campaign against the violence, but more structural reforms are needed.

“They achieved good results in the first two months,” Carrion said of the government’s state of emergency. “But it looks like the effect has been exhausted.”

He pointed to Ecuador’s prison system as a particular area of vulnerability. Investigations have shown that criminal organisations use prisons as spaces through which they can run their operations.

But under the state of emergency, the military was allowed to intervene. Carrion said that produced positive results.

“They intervened in 18 prisons out of 36, managing to sever [the gang leaders’] relations with the outside,” Carrion explained.

“But the minute the army leaves the prisons and gives them back to the national service SNAI, they will return to business as usual, since it has shown problems of efficiency, corruption and collusion.”

Carrion would like to see even greater reforms to government agencies like SNAI, beyond what is on the ballot on Sunday.

“Strengthening our institutions is paramount,” he told Al Jazeera, calling for the creation of a new body to replace SNAI.

A tank sits in front of a Guayaquil prison
The Ecuadorian government has deployed the military to control prisons like the one in Guayaquil [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Elections in the crosshairs

Still, some analysts question the efficacy of the referendum, even if it is successful.

Carla Alvarez, a professor studying security at the National Institute for Higher Studies, believes that the referendum will fall short of addressing the country’s gang crisis.

“No query made for public consultation will damage the structure of criminal organisations,” she told Al Jazeera.

She echoed concerns that the referendum has done more to bolster Noboa’s public image than to address the roots of crime in Ecuador.

Many experts trace the rise in the violence to Ecuador’s strategic location between the two largest cocaine producers in the world, Colombia and Peru.

They also point out that Ecuador’s economy was significantly weakened during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving unemployed youth vulnerable to gang recruitment.

But Alvarez said Noboa’s emphasis on holding the referendum is also motivated by his future ambitions. “This vote is happening in the middle of an electoral race. And this allows the president to revive his image on social media and achieve more visibility.”

The security situation has a direct impact on the integrity of Ecuador’s democracy. In the lead-up to the snap election last August, a presidential candidate running on an anticorruption platform was gunned down outside of a rally.

And in recent months, politicians have continued to be targets of the spike in violence.

Five mayors have been shot dead since the year began, the most recent murder unfolding on Friday, just days before Sunday’s vote.

The slain mayor, Jorge Maldonado of Portovelo, was the third to be killed in less than a month. His death followed that of Mayor Brigitte Garcia of San Vicente and Mayor Jose Sanchez of Camilo Ponce Enriquez.

Suspects kneel in front of armed police officers. In front of them is a blue table with guns arrayed as evidence.
Suspects and weapons are displayed for reporters at a police station in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on January 11, shortly after a TV station was stormed during a live broadcast [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Chance of a split vote

Critics like Alvarez underscore that referendums are no silver bullet to the security crisis.

Rather, they are a relatively common political tool. Since 2006, Ecuadorians have been asked to express their will through referendums nine times, on issues ranging from oil exploration to presidential term limits.

Paulina Recalde, director of pollster Perfiles de Opinion, also questions whether Sunday’s referendum will create the groundswell of support Noboa seeks.

While Noboa is angling for approval on all 11 items, Recalde’s research suggests that voters will not unanimously back all the proposals.

“Since the very beginning, we never found an overall majority. People won’t vote the same in all the 11 queries,” she said.

Recalde also said there was confusion over the vote. According to her research, 68 percent of respondents knew little or nothing about the referendum a month ago.

She added that the power outages Ecuador is currently experiencing — as well as a controversial police raid on Mexico’s embassy in Quito — could dent Noboa’s popularity, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

“If people vote yes to expand the role of the military, does it mean that they are providing strong support for the president? I would say no,” she said.

An armed soldier in a helmet stands guard on a Quito city street.
A member of Ecuador’s security forces stands guard outside the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito, Ecuador, on April 16 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Arbitration on the ballot

One of the most controversial ballot measures in Sunday’s referendum asks Ecuadorians to implement a system of “international arbitration” to resolve conflicts between the state and private foreign investors.

In international arbitration, a third neutral party is used to reach a binding decision that settles any claims.

Supporters of the measure feel arbitration could safeguard foreign investment in Ecuador, thereby boosting the country’s economy.

“In a dollarised economy like Ecuador, we need an increase in strong direct foreign investments aligned with our public policies,” said Eric Vinueza, investment counsellor for the Corporation for the Promotion of Exports and Investments (Corpei) who supports the measure.

But activists have criticised this proposal as a tool to discourage the government from enacting environmental reforms that might disadvantage foreign mining interests and other overseas companies.

With arbitration, foreign investors could file complaints and negotiate settlements behind closed doors, leaving the public no recourse to appeal.

“These are private and unilateral judicial spaces which allow transnational companies to sue the states, where the states are only able to defend themselves,” said Ivonne Ramos, a mining expert at the NGO Accion Ecologica.

In the 2008 constitution, Ecuador prohibited any international agreement that would limit its national sovereignty, including through international arbitration.

Sunday’s referendum would undo that protection. Ramos added that international arbitration could come with steep expenses for taxpayers.

Ecuador already owes $2.9 trillion to foreign companies. It is currently involved in 29 different lawsuits before international tribunals, with half of the complaints related to mining and fossil fuels.

“Three of the eight pending procedures could cost more than another $10 trillion, which is our national budget for education and health for 2024,” Ramos said.

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What’s the solution to the rising tensions between Israel and Iran?

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The United States says it was warned in advance of the Israeli drone strike on Iran.

Iran has shot down Israeli drones in the latest confrontation on Friday.

There have been global calls for restraint – with both East and West fearful of what further conflict could mean for the region and the world.

So, what is the thinking in Iran and Israel? And what is next?

Presenter: Elizabeth Puranam

Guests:

Mohammad Marandi – Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran

Gideon Levy – Columnist for the Haaretz Newspaper

Roxane Farmanfarmaian – Professor of Modern Middle East Politics at the University of Cambridge

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