US pledges $99 million to Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA

Announcement follows previous $150 million donation in April as Biden looks to restore aid to debt-ridden UN body pilloried by Israel for perpetuating conflict

A Palestinian rides on a pickup carrying sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 25, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)
A Palestinian rides on a pickup carrying sacks of food aid provided by UNRWA in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 25, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The US announced it would funnel $99 million to the UN body aiding Palestinian refugees Thursday, bolstering the cash-strapped agency amid a series of moves aimed at pulling Palestinians out of an endemic economic morass.

The State Department’s Population, Refugee and Migration Bureau said on Twitter that the money to the UN Relief and Works Agency will “provide education, health care, and emergency relief to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children and families during a time of need.”

In April, US President Joe Biden’s administration announced that it would begin restoring funding to the Palestinians via UNRWA, which aids Palestinian refugees and their descendants, as Washington sought to restore ties with Ramallah following a freeze during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

There was no immediate comment on the funding announcement from Israeli officials. Israel’s previous government criticized the April announcement, but the current coalition has mostly refrained from breaking with the Biden administration publicly.

Jerusalem has nonetheless long pushed for UNRWA’s closure, arguing that it helps perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians since it confers refugee status upon descendants of those originally displaced around the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The claim was echoed by Trump in his 2018 decision to stop funding the agency.

Pro-Israel advocates have also long criticized UNRWA for its textbooks, which they say promote incitement. Israeli monitoring groups have charged that UNRWA curricula promote violence and deny Israel’s right to exist.

A Palestinian pupil walks past United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA) and USAID humanitarian aid, on June 6, 2010 in the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

The State Department statement Thursday echoed previous promises from Washington that it would hold the agency to account.

“The US remains focused on the agency’s accountability, transparency, neutrality, and stability,” the statement read.

In an open letter last week, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said perennial budget shortfalls had forced the agency to introduce austerity measures, stretching the level of aid it could offer Palestinians to the limit.

“For close to a decade now, donor funding to the Agency has stagnated and remained below the amount needed to ensure the continuation of quality services. At the same time, the refugee population has continued to grow while poverty and vulnerabilities have skyrocketed. The financial crisis is of an existential nature,” he said.

He added that the resumption of US funding was too little to make up for the deficit, with other donors pulling out.

The Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UN relief agency headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 16, 2020 (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In 2021, the agency had a budget of $806 million, more than half of which was earmarked for education.

The US announcement came two weeks after US and Palestinian officials met virtually for the relaunching of the “US-Palestinian Economic Dialogue,” after a five-year hiatus.

The meeting saw participants pledge to “expand and deepen [US-Palestinian] cooperation and coordination across a range of sectors,” the State Department said.

Funding to UNRWA was discussed during a meeting earlier this month between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, a White House spokesperson said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a press conference in Carthage, near Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 8, 2021. (Slim Abid/Tunisian Presidency via AP)

While Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, his government has pledged to strengthen the PA and its ailing economy. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz hosted Abbas at his home for an extraordinarily rare meeting.

Gantz’s office announced several “confidence-building measures” following the meeting.

These include approving the inclusion of 6,000 West Bank residents and 3,500 Gaza residents on a humanitarian basis in the PA’s resident registration; advancing the transfer of NIS 100 million ($32.2 million) in tax payments; and adding 600 BMC (businessman card) approvals for senior Palestinian businesspeople, as well as 500 permits for businesspeople with such approvals to enter Israel with their vehicles, and dozens of VIP permits for PA senior officials.

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