Almost all European aid to the PA held up as officials discuss reform of textbooks

The EU is Ramallah’s single largest donor, but has sent almost no aid since 2020; Brussels has repeatedly raised concerns of incitement in Palestinian education

A worker on a lift adjusts the EU flags in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)
A worker on a lift adjusts the EU flags in front of EU headquarters in Brussels, on June 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Millions of euros in European Union aid to the Palestinian Authority are stuck in Brussels as officials in the European Commission discuss whether to condition parts of the foreign assistance on reforms to Palestinian textbooks, officials told The Times of Israel.

The European Union, the PA’s largest single donor, helps to pay the salaries of the PA’s many civil servants, which constitutes a significant chunk of the West Bank economy. Between 2008 and 2020, Brussels sent around $2.5 billion in direct budget support to the PA.

But citing “technical difficulties,” the bloc has donated almost no aid to the authority since 2020. The lack of funding has contributed to fears that Ramallah will see a fiscal crisis.

According to a diplomat who asked for anonymity to freely discuss the sensitive subject, the delay in sending EU funds to the Palestinians began as a technical matter.

But the process was substantially gummed up when an official in the European Commission in Brussels sought to condition parts of the aid on changes to Palestinian textbooks, the diplomat said.

“It was a technical matter that became a political matter,” the diplomat summed up.

EU aid to the Middle East is allocated to all the countries in the region as a single package. Neither Jordan, Syria, or Lebanon have received their aid since 2020, with the EU citing the same “technical difficulties.”

Israeli, European and American officials have long criticized alleged incitement in Palestinian textbooks. Palestinians reject that argument, saying that the curricula express the Palestinian national narrative.

According to the diplomat, EU official Oliver Varhelyi demanded “clear process indicators” for some aid to check whether the textbooks adhered to international standards. Varhelyi, whose responsibilities include overseeing European aid to the Palestinians, was appointed to the Commission by right-wing Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban.

The debate launched a drawn-out “consultative process” inside the EU that drew in various states and delayed the approval of the aid.

“The broader question is, should such substantive financial aid be linked to one element of the relationship between Europe and the Palestinians?” the diplomat added.

According to officials in the European Parliament who spoke with The Times of Israel, Varhelyi proposed that around $10 million be withheld unless PA textbooks were found to meet international standards.

Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, during a meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, May 2020 (Twitter)

Another informed source broadly confirmed the diplomat’s account but declined to comment further on the record.

Varhelyi has been publicly outspoken about his desire to enforce stricter conditions on European aid to the Palestinian Authority education sector. European Union funding pays the salaries of Palestinian civil servants who teach and design educational curricula.

“The conditionality of our financial assistance in the educational sector needs to be duly considered,” Varhelyi tweeted after an EU-commissioned report on Palestinian textbooks was released last summer.

Most PA funding comes from customs taxes that Israel collects on its behalf. Foreign aid has historically made up the shortfall — ranging between 20 and 30 percent of the annual budget — although more and more countries have hesitated to provide budget support in recent years.

Some Israeli leaders have called on the international community to provide more aid to the Palestinians, fearing that the rising deficit would prevent the PA from paying its civil servants.

“The neglect over the past years has created a financial crisis that threatens not just the Palestinian Authority, but the region as a whole,” Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said in a phone call leading up to a major conference of donor countries last year.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stands next to European Union envoy to the Palestinians Sven Kuhn von Bergsdorff (right) and election commissioner Hanna Nasir (left) at the opening of a new Palestinian Central Elections Commission headquarters on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. (WAFA)

But Israel also directly contributed to the PA’s soaring deficit by seizing NIS 600 million from the taxes it transfers to Ramallah last year. Under a 2018 Israeli law, Israel regularly confiscates money from the revenues to penalize Ramallah for paying stipends to Palestinian security prisoners and the families of Palestinians killed during confrontations with Israeli forces.

As the prospect of a Palestinian fiscal crisis loomed last August, however, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel would loan back NIS 500 million. After a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in December — and with no European aid forthcoming — Gantz announced another NIS 100 million advance, effectively circumventing the law.

IMPACT-se, a nonprofit that monitors textbooks for incitement, hailed Varhelyi’s proposal to condition the funding. The nonprofit recently released a report arguing that the PA had failed to change its educational materials despite pledges to the EU to do so.

“This step by the EU is the entirely predictable result of the Palestinian Authority breaching its own agreement with the EU to take the hate out of the textbooks, agreed upon only a few months ago,” said IMPACT-se director Marcus Sheff.

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