WASHINGTON – The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a resumption of U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, including to the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees, nearly all of which had been eliminated under President Donald Trump.
The State Department said it would provide a total of $235 million to projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. The administration had previously announced $15 million for the Palestinians to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The resumption in assistance has met opposition in Congress from pro-Israel lawmakers, who say the money may violate U.S. law.
The resumption of assistance was immediately welcomed by the United Nations, UNRWA itself and the Palestinians, while Israel expressed deep concern.
The Associated Press has previously reported that the administration notified Congress of its intent to ramp up aid to the Palestinians, but until Wednesday it had not publicly acknowledged any assistance other than that for COVID-19. The new assistance comes as the administration cements a new Mideast policy that in many ways is directly opposite of the one pursued by Trump.
“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. He said the money includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs and $150 million for UNRWA.
Blinken sought to forestall congressional criticism by saying that “all assistance will be provided consistent with U.S. law,” but Republican members of Congress are already gearing up to fight the aid. The announcement came on the same day that President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
Blinken maintained that U.S. support to the Palestinians is key to advancing American interests in the region.
“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values,” he said. “It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners.”
The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that it “renewed its commitment to the two-state solution based on the foundations of international legitimacy, and its willingness to respond to any international efforts to reach this goal.”
The leadership of the cash-strapped U.N. agency and the United Nations hailed the announcement. “We hope that others will now follow suit. There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin UNRWA as UNRWA donors,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Israel, meanwhile, frowned, repeating longstanding allegations that UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and is in need of major reform before support can be restored to it.
“Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution,” the Israeli foreign ministry said. “The renewal of aid to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization.”
The Biden administration has made no secret of its belief that Trump’s approach to the Mideast, which alienated the Palestinians, was flawed and made prospects for peace less likely. The new assistance appears aimed at encouraging the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel, though there is no indication it will have that effect and Israel has yet to weigh in publicly.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had championed the removal of funding for the relief agency, suggesting it was responsible for perpetuating Palestinian poverty and questioning whether all of the millions of people it serves are actually refugees.
Just a week before leaving office, Pompeo accused UNRWA of being “riddled with waste, fraud (and) concerns of support to terrorism” and said there are fewer than 200,000 legitimate Palestinian refugees still alive.
In signaling opposition to the renewed funding, pro-Israel lawmakers note in particular that federal laws prohibit direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority or the provision of aid that benefits the PA as long as it continues to pay stipends to people convicted of anti-U.S. or anti-Israel attacks and their families.
Already, a handful of Republicans are preparing to challenge the aid, maintaining that it violates the so-called Taylor Force and the Anti-Terrorism Clarification acts, both of which passed with strong bipartisan support.
The top Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees said the resumption in aid “undermines U.S. interests.”
“We will continue to scrutinize every proposed program to ensure the administration’s actions are in lockstep with the Taylor Force Act and in compliance with all laws governing assistance to the Palestinians,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas and Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho. "Additionally, we are disappointed that the Biden Administration has decided to resume funding for UNRWA without securing any reforms from the organization.”
The resumption of assistance comes just a week after the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report that found the U.S. government had not properly vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for U.S. antiterrorism criteria as required by law between 2015 and 2019, when Trump severed most of the aid.
While it said the U.S. Agency for International Development had followed the law with respect to people and groups it funded directly, it had not done the same with entities, known as sub-grantees, to which those groups then distributed taxpayer dollars. “If funding resumes, we recommend measures to improve compliance,” said the GAO report.