U.S. President Joe Biden will announce a series of economic initiatives aimed at improving Palestinians' daily lives and reviving U.S.-Palestinian ties, as he caps his tour of Israel with a visit to the West Bank on Friday.
The president will visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, where he will announce multi-year U.S. contributions of up to $100 million for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network (EJHN), subject to congressional approval. Former President Donald Trump had previously slashed $25 million from hospital aid after the Palestinian Authority severed ties with Trump over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
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Biden’s visit to the hospital will be the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to East Jerusalem outside the Old City, which is where holy sites such as the Western Wall are situated. Israeli right-wing politicians, pundits and activists, some of them with ties to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, have blasted Biden over his plan to visit without any Israeli officials alongside him. A senior U.S. official stressed Biden's visit is a private hospital at a private event.
The EJHN is a grouping of six hospitals in East Jerusalem providing specialized services to 50,000 patients from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza annually. It is not formally run by the Palestinian Authority but plays an essential role in the Palestinian healthcare system. The UAE last week announced a $25 million donation to East Jerusalem's Makassed Hospital, and a senior U.S. official anticipates further donations from Gulf states at Saturday's GCC+3 summit in Jeddah.
Biden will then meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he will reaffirm his support for a two-state solution. Palestinian officials have been vocally dissatisfied with the Biden administration's approach to the Palestinians since taking office, charging that the U.S. has failed to advance a political solution and hold Israel accountable.
"I would focus on what we have done, given what the situation was when we walked in office," a senior U.S. official said. "There was really no connection whatsoever, no discussions with the Palestinians, funding had been entirely severed, there was really no prospect of any political discussion of any kind. We have worked to reestablish a lot of those connections and opportunities for economic vibrancy," the official continued.
The U.S. is mindful of practical realities on the ground, the official added, preventing them from "coming in with a top-down plan, but we have always said that if the parties are ready to talk, and we think they should, we will be there right beside them forward to that day."
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Among the most recent and foremost issues for Palestinians is the Biden administration's handling of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The senior U.S. official stressed the U.S. publicly released what they believe the facts to be and highlighted Secretary of State Antony Blinken's invitation for the Abu Akleh family to Washington. He noted the case was raised with Israeli officials during Biden's bilateral meetings alongside issues such as settlement expansion and so-called "doomsday settlement" construction at E1.
Biden will also announce an additional $201 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), bringing UNRWA assistance during the Biden administration past $618 million. The U.S. will also provide an additional $15 million in aid for food insecurity in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine via funding to the UN World Food Program and two NGOs. This take total new aid from the trip to $316 million, on top of more than half a billion dollars the U.S. has provided since restoring aid previously cut under the Trump administration.
The president is also set to unveil plans to boost Palestinian business and improve connectivity for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has committed to speeding up the transformation in the West Bank from 3G to 4G networks and 2G to 3G in Gaza. The U.S. is hoping to see Israeli and Palestinian teams working together to start technological surveys with an aim to roll out an advanced infrastructure by the end of 2023.
In coordination with Israel, the U.S. president will announce additional measures to ease the Palestinian travelling experience, particularly concerning the Allenby Bridge border crossing. Israel will enable 24/7 access by the end of September, while a working group will assess the use of biometric passports within the next month as well as the establishment of a Palestinian Authority presence on the crossing. Israel will also reconvene the Joint Economic Committee, a longstanding PA request, for the first time since 2009. Additionally, Israel will increase the number of work permits for Gazans up to 15,500 and will approve the registration of 5,500 previously unregistered Palestinians on the Palestinian Population Register.
On top of this, the U.S. president will also grant $2.21 million to the Peres Center for Peace and $5 million to the tech-focus organization Appleseeds under the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), which authorizes up to $250 million dollars over five years to implement projects led by both Israelis and Palestinians establishing the environment necessary to achieve long-term peace.
The president will then depart for Jeddah, where he will continue advocating for Israel's further integration in the Middle East alongside leaders from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. He will be the first U.S. president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.
Biden will hold bilateral meetings with Saudi officials including King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Although Biden had pledged to treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state due to its human rights record during his election campaign, global crises have since forced him to walk back that promise. Biden, however, has stressed that human rights will be on the agenda during his visit.