WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a resumption of US aid to the Palestinians, including to the UN agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, almost all of whom had been wiped out under President Donald Trump .
The State Department said it would provide a total of $ 235 million for projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA. The administration previously announced $ 15 million to the Palestinians to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The resumption of aid has met opposition in Congress from pro-Israel lawmakers, who say the money can violate US law.
The resumption of assistance was immediately hailed by the UN, UNRWA itself and the Palestinians, while Israel expressed deep concern.
The Associated Press previously reported that the administration notified Congress of its intention to increase aid to the Palestinians, but until Wednesday it had not publicly acknowledged any assistance other than that for COVID-19. The new aid comes as the administration cements a new Middle East policy that in many ways is directly opposed to that pursued by Trump.
“The United States is pleased to announce that by working with Congress, we plan to restart United States economic, development and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a press release. He said the money includes $ 75 million in economic and development assistance to the West Bank and Gaza, $ 10 million for peacebuilding programs and $ 150 million for UNRWA.
Blinken has sought to avoid criticism from Congress by saying that “all assistance will be provided in accordance with US law,” but Republican members of Congress are already preparing to fight the aid. The announcement came on the same day that President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during a phone call with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Blinken argued that US support for the Palestinians is essential to advancing US interests in the region.
“American foreign aid to the Palestinian people serves important American interests and values,” he said. “It provides critical assistance to those in great need, promotes economic development and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners. “
The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that it “renewed its commitment to the two-state solution based on the foundations of international legitimacy, and its willingness to respond to all international efforts to achieve this. goal”.
The cash-strapped United Nations agency and United Nations leaders welcomed the announcement. “We hope more will follow now. A number of countries have significantly reduced or discontinued their contributions to UNRWA. We hope the US decision will lead others to join UNRWA as UNRWA donors, ”said UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.
Israel, meanwhile, frowned, repeating long-standing claims that UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and needs major reform before it can return to it.
“Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution,” the Israeli foreign ministry said. “The renewal of assistance to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, objectives and conduct of the organization.”
The Biden administration has made no secret of its belief that Trump’s approach to the Middle East, which alienated the Palestinians, was flawed and made the prospects for peace less likely. The new assistance appears to be aimed at encouraging the Palestinians to resume negotiations with Israel, although there is no indication that it will have that effect and that Israel has yet to weigh in publicly.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had defended cutting funding to the relief agency, suggesting it was responsible for perpetuating Palestinian poverty and wondering if all the millions of people she serves are really refugees.
Just a week before leaving office, Pompeo accused UNRWA of being “riddled with waste, fraud (and) concerns supporting terrorism” and said there were fewer than 200,000 legitimate Palestinian refugees. still alive.
In signaling their opposition to the renewal of funding, pro-Israel lawmakers note in particular that federal laws prohibit direct assistance to the PA or the provision of aid that benefits the PA as long as it continues. to pay allowances to those convicted of anti-US or anti-Israel attacks and their families.
Already, a handful of Republicans are preparing to challenge the aid, claiming it violates the so-called Taylor Force Act and counterterrorism clarification laws, both of which have passed with strong bipartisan support.
Leading Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees have said the resumption of aid “undermines American interests.”
“We will continue to review each proposed program to ensure that the administration’s actions are in accordance with the Taylor Force Act and in accordance with all laws governing assistance to Palestinians,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho. “In addition, we are disappointed that the Biden Administration has decided to resume funding for UNRWA without securing reform from the organization.”
The resumption of aid comes just a week after the non-partisan Government Accountability Office released a report that the US government had failed to properly screen all of its Palestinian funding recipients for US counterterrorism criteria, such as the demanded the law between 2015 and 2019, when Trump broke most of the aid.
While asserting that the United States Agency for International Development followed the law with respect to the people and groups it directly funded, it did not do the same with the entities, known as sub-recipients, to which these groups then distributed taxpayer money. “If funding resumes, we recommend actions to improve compliance,” the GAO report said.