EU releases aid to Palestinians held up over textbook reform

European Commission votes to send over $200 million to PA; unclear if funds sent on condition alleged incitement be removed from curricula

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)

The European Commission voted on Monday night to release some long-delayed funding to the Palestinian Authority, after months in which hundreds of millions of euros were held up in a fight over whether to condition the aid on reforms to PA textbooks, three sources told The Times of Israel.

A vote was held in the European Commission to release aid for the year 2021, reportedly about $220 million in direct budget support to the PA. EU Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi had proposed conditioning some of the money on reforms to Palestinian textbooks to remove alleged incitement, sparking a months-long battle in Brussels as officials argued for and against.

Palestinian officials claimed the funding was ultimately released without any strings attached. But the vote’s results are not yet public, and the EU’s envoy to the Palestinians declined to comment.

The decision to release the funding comes as EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen begins a three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank. She is set to meet with PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh Tuesday in Ramallah.

The European Union, the PA’s largest donor, helps to pay the salaries of the PA’s many civil servants, constituting 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 PA textbooks have long been a subject of controversy. Watchdogs have slammed the curricula for allegedly promoting violence and glorifying terrorism. The PA defends them as a faithful reflection of their national narrative.

In late 2021, senior EU Commission official Oliver Varhelyi – a conservative appointee close to Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban – proposed conditioning about $10 million of the EU’s aid to the PA on reforming the textbooks.

Ramallah has been plagued by repeated financial difficulties and dwindling international support, making the loss of EU funding a serious blow.

Both Palestinian and Israeli officials have warned that the PA could face fiscal collapse, in part due to the lack of aid.

Many PA civil servants had to get by on partial or delayed wages for months. Meanwhile, the PA has fallen ever further behind on payments to Israel for electricity and water, and has struggled to pay medical costs for Palestinians seeking treatment in Israeli hospitals.

European states have been debating Varhelyi’s proposal heatedly ever since, with strong feelings for and against it in Brussels. The delay compounded a two-year period in which the funds were already frozen for technical reasons.

“The broader question is: Should such substantive financial aid be linked to one element of the relationship between Europe and the Palestinians?” one European diplomat critical of the proposal said in a February interview.

Students sit in a classroom on the first day of the new school year at the United Nations-run elementary school at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, August 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

By contrast, the IMPACT-se nonprofit, which regularly issues reports analyzing Palestinian curricula, hailed the proposal.

“There is now too much opposition from the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Council itself to transfer massive sums of money to the PA while it brazenly continues to produce antisemitic and violent textbooks,” IMPACT-se director Marcus Sheff said in March.

Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly said that they will not accept conditioning the aid on changes to Palestinian textbooks. The PA has also consistently rejected the accusation that its textbooks promote violence and terrorism.

“We are made to explain and justify what appears in our educational materials, even though it explains our narrative and our national identity. Meanwhile, no one demands to review Israeli curricula and media, so the world can see the true incitement by Israeli institutions,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said in a speech to the United Nations last year.

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