Visiting Ramallah, EU president confirms resumption of some Palestinian aid

Following holdup over removing incitement from textbooks, Ursula von der Leyen tells PA prime minister that she is ‘glad that the EU funds for 2021 can now be disbursed rapidly’

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen meets with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in Ramallah, June 14, 2022. (Atef Safadi via AP)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen meets with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in Ramallah, June 14, 2022. (Atef Safadi via AP)

Some EU aid to the PA will resume after being held up for over two years, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah on Tuesday.

A logjam created when EU officials debated whether to condition the funding on the removal of anti-Israel incitement from Palestinian textbooks had been dealt with, von der Leyen said.

“As Team Europe, we are the largest donor in Palestine, with around 600 million euros per year. And I am glad to announce the EU funds for 2021 can now be disbursed rapidly, all the difficulties are gone,” said von der Leyen.

Von der Leyen’s remarks confirmed the results of a European Commission vote to greenlight the funds Monday night.

The EU’s 2021 funding plans include some $235 million in direct support for the PA budget. The aid supports the wages of the PA’s many civil servants: teachers, doctors, nurses, and firefighters. It also helps fund Palestinians seeking treatment in Israeli hospitals.

The precise details of the EU decision to renew the funding have yet to be made public. Palestinian officials say that the aid will resume unconditionally, but the EU has yet to confirm whether that is the case. And neither side mentioned plans to disburse planned EU aid for 2022.

“I thank Europe for unconditionally resuming [its] support, and for what it has provided and will provide us with the necessary assistance to preserve Palestinian civil and security institutions,” Shtayyeh said at a press conference with von der Leyen on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the EU’s envoy to the Palestinians declined to comment, saying more information would be forthcoming in the days to come.

IMPACT-se, an Israel- and UK-based nonprofit that has lobbied the EU to crack down on incitement in Palestinian textbooks, hailed the months-long funding freeze as “extraordinary.”

“Clearly the PA textbook issue is too important an issue now to simply go away in the Commission and in the Parliament. The fact is, as of today, no improvements to the textbooks have yet been made,” IMPACT-se director Marcus Sheff said in a statement.

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.

European states have been debating Varhelyi’s proposal heatedly ever since. The delay compounded a two-year period in which the funds were already frozen for technical reasons.

Ramallah has been plagued by repeated financial difficulties and inconsistent 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 have had to make ends meet with only 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.

“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.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh receives the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in the city of Ramallah on June 14, 2022. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

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.

In April, the European Parliament passed a resolution slamming the PA, saying “problematic and hateful material in Palestinian school textbooks has still not been removed.”

“[The EU Parliament] is concerned about the continued failure to act effectively against hate speech and violence in school textbooks,” the lawmakers stated.

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