White House again quietly boosts aid to Palestinians; some in Congress cry foul

Biden administration announces tens of millions in aid to Palestinians for third time in two weeks; some Republicans preparing to challenge move

In this photo taken on February 2, 2020, a child stands next to a sack of flour as people come to receive food aid from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) distribution center in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
In this photo taken on February 2, 2020, a child stands next to a sack of flour as people come to receive food aid from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) distribution center in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The Biden administration is moving again to increase US assistance to the Palestinians as it fires up a new Mideast policy that is directly opposite of the one pursued by its predecessor.

For the third time in two weeks, the administration has either publicly announced or quietly notified Congress of its intent to provide the Palestinians with tens of millions of dollars in aid.

On Monday, the administration informed lawmakers that it would give the Palestinians $40 million for law enforcement and security costs.

“Supporting an enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a core US national security objective,” the State Department said in the notification, which was dated April 2 but transmitted only on Monday. “As an essential part of this effort, US government assistance seeks to build professional and accountable security and criminal justice institutions that maintain security and stability in the West Bank, uphold the rule of law, contribute directly to regional security, and protect the population.”

The Biden administration has made no secret of its belief that former president Donald Trump’s approach to the Mideast, 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 has yet to weigh in publicly.

Then US president Donald Trump welcomes visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The newly allocated $40 million comes on top of $75 million in assistance for infrastructure, health and civil society groups the administration told Congress about on March 28 and $15 million in coronavirus assistance it announced a day earlier.

The administration is also expected as early as this week to announce a resumption in funding to the UN agency that deals with Palestinians, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The Trump administration had slashed funding to the Palestinians to almost nothing and ended support for the UN agency as it adopted a staunchly pro-Israel approach in its handling of the Middle East.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had championed the removal of funding for the relief agency, suggesting 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.

Pro-Israel lawmakers are signaling opposition to the renewed funding, noting in particular that federal laws prohibit direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority or the provision of aid that benefits the PA as long as it continues to pay stipends to people convicted of anti-US or anti-Israel attacks and their families.

Already, a handful of Republicans are preparing to challenge the aid, maintaining that it violates the so-called Taylor Force and the Anti-Terrorism Clarification acts, both of which passed with strong bipartisan support.

The resumption of assistance comes days after the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office issued a report that found the US government had not properly vetted all of its Palestinian funding recipients for US antiterrorism criteria as required by law between 2015 and 2019, when Trump severed most of the aid.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, April 1, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

While it said the US Agency for International Development had followed the law with respect to people and groups it funded directly, it had not done the same with entities, known as sub-grantees, to which those groups then distributed taxpayer dollars. “If funding resumes, we recommend measures to improve compliance,” said the GAO report, which was released last week.

Before the Trump administration began tightening the screws on the PA in 2018 for refusing to engage with its peace efforts, the United States 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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly refused to accept a phone call from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken a month and a half ago, demanding that the new administration’s first call come directly from the Oval Office.

However, more than two months into the new presidency, a call between US President Joe Biden and Abbas not taken place.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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