Biden Resumes U.S. Aid to UN Agency Supporting Palestinian Refugees

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A UNRWA office in Gaza in 2018.
A UNRWA office in Gaza in 2018.Credit: Mohammed Abed/AFP

WASHINGTON - The Biden administration on Wednesday officially announced the resumption of aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency supporting more than five million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, previously cut by the Trump administration in 2018.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a package of $150 million in aid for UNRWA, $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, and $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Blinken also noted that the U.S. is resuming "vital security assistance programs" while stressing that all assistance will be consistent with U.S. law.

Republican lawmakers have also alleged that resumed U.S. aid to the Palestinians would violate the Taylor Force act, legislation that limits U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority over its payments to convicted terrorists and their families — an allegation the Biden administration has denied.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department added that "our development partners in the West Bank and Gaza have aggressive risk mitigation systems in place," that are aimed at ensuring "that U.S. taxpayer fudned assistance is reaching those for whom it is intended."

"U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values. It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners," Blinken said. 

"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," he added.

Palestinian refugees receive aid distributed by UNRWA Gaza City, October, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. and UN Gilad Erdan said he strongly opposed the decision, noting that in conversations with the State Department he "expressed disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing antisemitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out."

Israel’s foreign ministry echoed Erdan’s criticism, saying “Israel's position is that the organization (UNRWA) in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution. So the renewal of the aid must be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization.”

The resumption of aid is the latest step the Biden administration has undertaken to repair U.S.-Palestinian relations. Last month Washington announced that it was sending $15 million to the Palestinians to assist in the COVID-19 response in the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. officials have previously said that the administration also intends to reopen Palestinian diplomatic missions shuttered by the Trump administration.

Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. — previously UNRWA's largest donor — cut some $360 million in annual funding for UNRWA, leading to tens of thousands of Palestinians no longer receiving food aid or basic health services. Most of the funds were intended to support humanitarian and economic projects in the West Bank and Gaza, not meant to go directly to the Palestinian Authority.

UNRWA began operating in 1950, with the goal of aiding Palestinian refugees covering a variety of needs. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has supported breaking up UNRWA, which he says perpetuates the refugee status of the Palestinians, though the Israeli government had warned the Trump administration about dramatic and sudden cuts. 

UNRWA officials warned last September that they were in the midst of a financial crisis due to the loss of U.S. funding and further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic meltdown in Lebanon and a major budget deficit. The U.S. gave UNRWA $360 million in 2017, but only $60 million in 2018 and nothing since.

U.S. Jewish establishment organizations such as AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations have been increasingly vocal in their criticisms of UNRWA over the past several months as talk of resumed aid has increased, citing its alleged organizational inefficiencies, mismanagement and encouragement of anti-Israel hostility. 

Bipartisan House lawmakers recently reintroduced a bill calling for greater State Department oversight of incitement in UNRWA and PA-crafted curriculum and textbooks.

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