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Transcript: Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland on "Face the Nation," March 17, 2024

Sen. Van Hollen: Claims that UNRWA is Hamas proxy are "just flat-out lies"
Claims that UNRWA is Hamas "proxy" are "just flat-out lies," Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) says 06:57

The following is a transcript of an interview with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, that aired on March 17, 2024.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We're joined now by Maryland Democrat, Senator Chris Van Hollen. Senator, a lot to get to with you but I do know you met with some families of hostage members, this past- family members of hostages, excuse me, this past week. Talks are about to resume. What did the hostage families tell you?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, they- they came and talked about the- the terror every day of not knowing what's happening to their family members. And they were very clear, we need to focus on getting the hostages back and a ceasefire. And this is why I'm for a ceasefire and the return of the hostages.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And that ceasefire would also allow for aid to move in. That's what the Biden administration is championing. I want to go to some specific things that I know you're focusing on. There's this government funding debate happening in the next few days. Some Republicans want to cut off support for the UN agency, UNRWA, that supports about 6 million Palestinian refugees, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza Strip, West Bank. You said last week, senators need to read the classified report prepared by the Director of National Intelligence about the Netanyahu government claims about that agency. You seem to be implying that the links to terror groups are unfounded.

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: Oh, there's no doubt that the- the claim that Prime Minister Netanyahu and others are making, that somehow UNRWA is a proxy for Hamas, are just flat out lies. That's a flat out lie. If you look at the person who's in charge of operations on the ground in Gaza for UNRWA, it's about a 20 year U.S. Army veteran. You can be sure he is not in cahoots with Hamas. Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA since at least 2017. That's been his goal, not just in Gaza, but also in the other places you talked about. And if you get rid of UNRWA in Gaza today, it is the primary distribution system for food and aid. So if you cut off funding for UNRWA and Gaza entirely, it means more people will starve, more people won't get the medical assistance they need. And so it would be a huge mistake to cut them off.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Can you explain why you believe that the Prime Minister is trying to dismantle UNRWA, which is the agency that has 13,000 people distributing aid? No one else has that kind of infrastructure in Gaza.

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's exactly right. And there have been allegations made by the Netanyahu government that up to 14 of those 13,000 people were involved in the horrific October 7 attacks. We should investigate it, we should hold all those people accountable. But for goodness sakes, let's not hold 2 million innocent Palestinian civilians who are dying of starvation, let's not hold them, essentially, accountable for the bad acts of 14 people. Netanyahu has wanted to get rid of UNRWA because he has seen them as a- a means to continue the hopes of the Palestinian people for a homeland of their own. And he has been opposed to a two state solution. And this has been his primary objective, stopping a two state solution.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Back in February, you pushed the Biden administration to craft what ended up being a National Security Memorandum that requires countries who receive U.S. weapons, all countries, to certify that they are in compliance with U.S. law, and they are not blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid. Israel has until March 24 to turn in a letter, they reportedly did so. Are they in compliance? 

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: No they're not, not as of today. And you're right. This is a very important tool that the Biden administration's put forward, applies to Israel and any other country that receives U.S. military assistance.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Will President Biden's administration say that they're not in compliance? Are you confident?

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: I hope they will, because President Biden himself has repeatedly said that the Netanyahu government is unnecessarily restricting desperately needed humanitarian assistance. I mean, the President has said it a number of times, he's said no excuses. So it may be that the Minister of Defense in Israel signed this. But I cannot imagine a scenario right now, where Secretary Blinken can find that that promise is credible and reliable when the day it was signed, clearly the Netanyahu government is not in compliance, because we see that they're continuing to restrict humanitarian assistance.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll watch to see if Secretary Blinken affirms it or denies it. But what's the consequence here? I know you've said you don't want to cut off all military support for Israel. You're talking about offensive weapons.

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: Yes, this- this would not apply to the Iron Dome or any defensive systems but it would say, you know, no more bombs for use in Gaza until you come into compliance. So It's not a total cut off. I mean, the Netanyahu government can open the Erez Crossing to help starving people in northern Gaza. They can stop turning away maternity kits, you know, claiming that somehow they pose a dual use danger that they could be used for military purposes, they could stop turning away water purifiers. Because when they do that they send the whole truck back for four weeks. So they need to allow more assistance in, and they need to really deal with that deconfliction issue. People need to be able to deliver assistance without getting killed.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, and the U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield, who works for the Biden administration, has said that police have been hit while helping UN convoys be delivered. Do you believe that the Israeli government's deliberately targeting to stop humanitarian aid deliveries? Because the Israeli government denies that.

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: Well, we know in the case of, I think about six of the so-called blue helmeted, you know, security escorts, that they were targeted, because Israel claimed that they were part of Hamas when they were sort of- so- so we know in that case, that was a deliberate targeting. But you're right. There have been other cases where Israel has- has, you know, used force, and a convoy, for example, in the north passed the inspection and then was hit by a naval missile. I do want to point out also, Margaret, that Ambassador Satterfield has said very clearly that when it comes to UN provided humanitarian assistance, like humanitarian assistance through UNRWA, there's been no evidence of diversion to Hamas. 


SEN. VAN HOLLEN: So he's said this very, very clearly.

MARGARET BRENNAN: --and all of Congress has received that information?

SEN. VAN HOLLEN: I have tried to tell my colleagues who keep coming back from meeting with Netanyahu government officials spreading this- this lie, this myth about diversion from UNRWA. Now there may be diversion in other places, but not from UNRWA.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator, we'll watch what happens in the coming days. We'll be back in a moment.

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