US gov’t watchdog: Aid agency did not properly vet Palestinians for terror ties

General Accounting Office finds USAID failed to properly check secondary recipients of funds it provided

A Palestinian carries a box of vegetable oil as he walks past bags of flour on a truck donated by USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, at a depot in the West Bank village of Anin near Jenin, June 4, 2008 (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)
A Palestinian carries a box of vegetable oil as he walks past bags of flour on a truck donated by USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development, at a depot in the West Bank village of Anin near Jenin, June 4, 2008 (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

WASHINGTON — In a report released just as the Biden administration is resuming funding to the Palestinians, a US government watchdog, the General Accounting Office, found that the US Agency for International Development has failed in the past to properly vet beneficiaries for terrorist ties.

USAID fully complied with vetting procedures for primary recipients in the years 2015-2019, but did not thoroughly vet the groups that got money from the primary recipients, the “subawards,” the report released Monday found.

“Further, USAID’s post-award compliance reviews occurred, at times, after the subawards expired, which was too late to take corrective actions,” the report said.

Tightening up its procedures would “better position USAID to reduce the risk of providing assistance to entities or individuals associated with terrorism,” the GAO said.

The Trump administration suspended virtually all assistance to the Palestinians in 2018 after Palestinian officials refused contact with the United States following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Aid was mostly severed as well because the Palestinian Authority refused to stop paying terrorists and/or their families, as required by US law.

President Joe Biden pledged during his campaign last year to resume assistance to the Palestinians, and he launched the assistance formally last week with $15 million in COVID relief. The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the Biden administration notified Congress that it intended to spend at least $75 million in Palestinian areas, in part to redress the Trump cuts.

Palestinian workers unload a truck from 20,000 doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine upon its arrival to Gaza Strip, at the Rafah crossing border with Egypt, February 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

“Given the absence of USAID activity in recent years, engaging civil society actors will be critical to regaining trust and goodwill with Palestinian society,” the notification said.

The State Department declined to comment on the notification, and it wasn’t clear if the $75 million includes the $15 million in pandemic aid. Nevertheless, the funding plan represents a major shift in the US approach to the Palestinians after the mutual recriminations during the Trump years.

The administration has made no secret of its belief that Trump’s approach, 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’s response has yet to be gauged.

According to USAID’s congressional notification, funding has either resumed already or will shortly as much of the $75 million is intended for urgent short-term projects aimed at quickly rebuilding US-Palestinian relations, which had sunk to lows during the Trump administration. The notice said the money may start to be spent on April 10.

In a bid to forestall expected questions and criticism from lawmakers who supported Trump’s aid cuts, USAID sought to assure Congress that it would ensure all legal criteria for providing the money would be met.

“USAID adheres to rigorous partner antiterrorism vetting and certification, auditing, and monitoring procedures to help ensure that its assistance does not go to Hamas or other terrorist organizations,” the notice said.

In announcing the $15 million in COVID-19 assistance, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said it was “one piece of our renewed commitment to the Palestinian people,” but she did not elaborate.

US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at UN Headquarters in New York, on March 1, 2021. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

Under Trump, the US provided unprecedented support to Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv and breaking relations and slashing financial assistance for the Palestinians.

Soon after US President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20, his administration announced that it would restore relations with the Palestinians and renew aid as key elements of support for a two-state solution to the conflict.

Thomas-Greenfield reiterated Biden’s support for a two-state solution and said “the United States looks forward to continuing its work with Israel, the Palestinians and the international community to achieve a long-sought peace in the Middle East.”

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