US President Joe Biden on Friday announced an infusion of American assistance for six East Jerusalem hospitals that he said serve as “the backbone” of health care for Palestinians.
During a visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital on the third day of his trip to the region, Biden said that Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity, and access to health care when you need it is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”
Biden, in his speech, praised nurses and other health care workers for providing care and hope to the sick, and announced a commitment of $100 million by the US to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.
He began very personal remarks by asking, “Are there any nurses in the room?” and went on, amid laughter: “Because if not, I’m going home… If there are any angels in heaven – no, no, no, I mean this sincerely, from the bottom of my heart…
“My wife and daughter were killed and my boys were trapped in a vehicle for three hours when a tractor-trailer hit them; the doctor saved their lives, but the nurses made them want to live, cared for them every day,” he went on. He added: “I don’t think you nurses are nearly appreciated enough.”
He also discussed his own health problems, and the death of his son Beau.
Returning to more formal remarks, Biden promised, “The US will continue to work with the Palestinian leadership and the government of Israel and all our international partners to ensure that East Jerusalem’s hospital network remains sustainable and available, and is able to provide high-quality care the Palestinian people deserve,” he said.
The six East Jerusalem hospitals, emblematic of the Palestinian presence in the city, have faced a funding crisis in recent years, as the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority has struggled to pay for advanced treatment for Palestinians.
Augusta Victoria, which is operated by the Lutheran World Federation, ended 2021 in severe debt, with more than $70 million owed by the PA, according to a letter sent to US lawmakers in May. The hospital provides advanced medical care, including radiation treatment for cancer patients and pediatric kidney dialysis, to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The East Jerusalem Hospital Network is not formally run by the PA and works with Israeli HMOs, but it also plays a key role in the Palestinian health care system. Much of the network’s operating budget comes from treating Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, for which the PA foots the bill.
The visit to Augusta Victoria was the first by a sitting US president to anywhere in East Jerusalem that is not the Old City and was seen as likely to please Palestinians, who claim the area as the capital of their future state.
Israeli officials sought to join Biden on the visit, an Israeli source revealed last week, given the Israeli-declared sovereignty over the whole city. But the US ultimately pushed back on the request, and a senior administration official briefing reporters Thursday explained this was because it was a “private visit to a private hospital.”
Dr. Fadi Atrash, the hospital’s CEO, called Biden’s visit a “courageous statement of support for the Palestinian people.”
The $100 million is subject to approval by the US Congress and would pay out over several years. In his comments Friday, Biden called the six hospitals “the backbone of the Palestinian health care system.”
The hospital funding is part of a total sum of $316 million in financial support for the Palestinians that Biden is set to announce during his visit. That comes on top of the roughly $500 million his administration has already announced over the past year and a half.
The aid came after the Trump administration slashed $25 million to the hospitals in 2018 as part of a larger suspension of aid to the Palestinians. Biden has restored much of that assistance since assuming office, but has made no progress in resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which collapsed more than a decade ago.
Biden was set to meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank city of Bethlehem later on Friday.
In Bethlehem, the US president is expected to announce plans to ease access at the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, along with a series of other initiatives meant to boost the Palestinians.
Ramallah, long disappointed by Washington’s approach in the region, argues that the quality-of-life moves amount to little more than a fig leaf without diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution. Biden angered many Palestinians Wednesday when he dismissed prospects for Palestinian statehood as unrealistic in the short term.
During the president’s visit to East Jerusalem, some two dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered there, holding Palestinian flags and posters of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who was killed in May while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank.
The demonstration was held several hundred meters from the Augusta Victoria Hospital.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.