The United States government announced on Wednesday afternoon that it was formally resuming $150 million in economic aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN body tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees, amidst a broader push to restore its aid to the Palestinians.
“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart US economic, development and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Under the administration of previous US president Donald Trump, Washington largely ended funding for the Palestinian Authority and for UNRWA, which runs a network of educational and medical programs for Palestinian refugees around the Middle East.
In addition to resuming UNRWA funding, the planned aid package includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and $40 million in security assistance.
In a statement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the resumption of aid, as well as Biden’s “commitment to the two-state solution as a basis for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said he hoped the renewal of aid was just one step toward thawing the Palestinians’ relations with the United States.
“We look forward not only to the resumption of American financial aid despite its importance, but also to the return of political relations with the United States in a way that realizes our people’s legitimate rights,” Shtayyeh said in a statement.
Some of the American aid had begun to flow quietly over the past week, with the State Department notifying Congress of its decision to do so without much public fanfare. The aid immediately provoked criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who support stricter conditions on aid to the Palestinians.
UNRWA, whose 28,000 employees are mostly descendants of refugees, provides services such as education and healthcare to roughly 5.7 million Palestinians in camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon the West Bank and Gaza.
“Funding to UNRWA also provides critical COVID-19 assistance, including healthcare, medicine and medical supplies, as well as cash and food assistance to families severely impacted by COVID-19,” Blinken said.
Trump seceded from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2017 and halted its millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA the next year, arguing that both suffered from anti-Israel bias and effectively helped perpetuate the conflict.
“The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation,” a spokesperson for Trump’s State Department said of UNRWA at the time.
The Biden administration has made no secret of its belief that Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which alienated the Palestinians, was flawed and made prospects for peace less likely. The new administration has argued that when the US leaves such international forums, it loses its ability to influence them.
Israel, however, has 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.
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.
“[UNRWA’s] incitement activities and the fictitious way in which it defines who is a Palestinian ‘refugee’ only perpetuates the conflict and encourages hatred among the Palestinian public,” Israel’s ambassador to the US and the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said Wednesday in response to the administration’s decision.
Erdan said that he had privately opposed the move to renew aid.
“In conversations with the US State Department, I expressed my regret and opposition to the decision to resume assistance to the agency without at least implementing the necessary reforms to stop its incitement and the anti-Semitic content taught in its schools,” Erdan said on Wednesday.
Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley had also championed the removal of funding for the relief agency, arguing it was responsible for perpetuating Palestinian poverty and questioning whether all of the millions of people it serves are actually refugees.
Just a week before leaving office, Pompeo accused UNRWA of being “riddled with waste, fraud [and] concerns of support to terrorism” and said there are fewer than 200,000 legitimate Palestinian refugees still alive.
Before it withdrew its support for UNRWA, the US was the largest contributor to the UN agency to the tune of $365 million, or nearly 30 percent of its annual budget.
The agency had entered 2021 with liabilities of $75 million from the last financial year, and its annual deficit was expected to reach $200 million in the current year.
Wednesday’s announcement represented an additional opening of the US faucet of aid to the Palestinians after it was gradually closed by the Trump administration. It was the fourth such move in just two weeks, making good on Biden’s pledge to restart financial assistance to the Palestinians.
Before Wednesday, the Biden White House had notified Congress that it would give the Palestinians $40 million for law enforcement and security costs, on top of $75 million in assistance for infrastructure and $15 million in coronavirus assistance.
A handful of Republicans are already preparing to challenge the aid, maintaining that it violates the Taylor Force and the Anti-Terrorism Clarification acts. Both laws — which passed with wide bipartisan support — block most aid that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority so long as it continues to pay stipends to security prisoners, including those convicted of terrorism.
But the legislation carved out exceptions for exactly the type of aid that the Biden administration has been resuming in recent weeks. And the recently announced financial assistance was already allocated during the previous administration — based on legislation signed into law by Trump himself.
“Congress earmarked $150 million for economic support and security assistance, split evenly, in the appropriations bill for fiscal year 2020. This means the Biden administration has no choice but to spend this money or be in breach of congressional law,” Abraham Center managing director Joel Braunold, who closely follows US aid to the Palestinians, told The Times of Israel.
The State Department will have to disburse its economic support funding — which is subject to the Taylor Force Act’s restrictions — with enormous care. But the United States could still fund civil society programs, rule of law initiatives and Gaza-based projects, as long as none of them benefit the PA.
“By spending the economic support funds in ways that do not directly benefit the PA, as defined by the Trump administration in 2018, the Biden administration is both fulfilling the will of Congress and following the law,” Braunold said.
Before the Trump administration began tightening the screws on the Palestinian Authority in 2018 for refusing to engage with its peace efforts, the US was the single largest donor country to the PA.
The US paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the PA’s creditors, such as the Israeli state utility companies from which the Palestinians purchase water and electricity. It also paid for training for the PA’s security forces and numerous infrastructure projects.