image Photo: Flash90, Reuters

US to resume Palestinian aid

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has announced that it will restore at least $235 million in aid to the Palestinians.

The humanitarian, economic and security aid package includes funding to the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees that had been severed by former President Donald Trump.

“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people.  This 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 $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN Relief and Works Agency,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.

In a seeming attempt to overcome longtime allegations of corrupt practices by the UN agency, Blinken said, “The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability, and transparency.  As with all of our engagements with UN institutions, the United States needs to be at the table to ensure that the reforms advance efficiencies and are in accord with our interests and values.”

UNRWA has long applied a different standard to the categorization of Palestinians as “refugees” than any other people, by permitting them to pass the status down from generation to generation. The agency gives financial benefits to 5.7 million “Palestinian refugees” living in the West Bank, Gaza and across the Middle East; who are believed to have descended from 726,000 Arabs who fled or were driven out of their homes in fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.

The Palestinians are also the only people to whom the UN has devoted their own exclusive agency.

The US had been the organization’s single largest donor since its establishment in 1949, with a contribution of $365 million in 2017. After deeming UNRWA as an “irredeemably flawed operation” and an “unstainable business model” because of what then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called its “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries,” the Trump Administration blocked nearly all aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and UNRWA the following year. This, following Ramallah’s boycott of Washington over its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Many viewed Trump’s policy as an attempt to force the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel.

At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the US decision as a positive step forward in the peace process, saying that UNRWA only perpetuated the conflict with the Palestinians.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the cutoff as a “flagrant assault” on his people.

The restoration of aid marks a major step in Washington’s effort to repair US ties with the Palestinians. The Biden Administration has also previously pledged to and work toward reopening the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington and re-establish the goal of ultimately establishing a Palestinian state.

“US foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important US interests and values,” said Secretary Blinken, stressing that the funding “supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability.  It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners.  The United States is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated Two-State solution.”

Israel responded to the American decision with evident frustration.

“Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution,” said a statement from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, insisting that “The renewal of UNRWA assistance must be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization.”

In a video statement posted on Twitter, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Gilad Erdan also brought up the issue of documented incitement against Israel being taught in Palestinian schools funded and operated by UNRWA.

“Israel is strongly opposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity happening in UNRWA’s facilities. We believe that this U.N. agency for so-called refugees should not exist in its current format. UNRWA schools regularly use materials that incite against Israel. And the twisted definition used by the agency to determine who is a refugee only perpetuates the conflict,” said Ambassador Erdan.

Erdan added, “In conversations with the US State Department, I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out. UNRWA is an organization that engaged in political advocacy and enables incitement to violence. Therefore, it should not exist in its current form.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s office in Ramallah greeted the resumption of US aid and called on the Biden Administration “to work with the Quartet for Middle East Peace to open a new political horizon towards the liberation of the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, per international legitimacy and resolutions.”