WASHINGTON – As the number of coronavirus cases in Gaza and the West Bank continues to grow, U.S. senators urged on Friday the Trump administration to release funds that Congress has allocated for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in the hope of curbing the spread of the pandemic.
In a joint letter to the U.S. State Department, six senators from the Democratic Party described the immense damage that an outbreak in Gaza and the West Bank would cause to both the Palestinians and Israel.
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the West Bank nears 100. In Gaza, nine cases were diagnosed, the first two after returning from Pakistan, while seven came down with the virus after coming in contact with them.
The senators noted that Congressional leaders have agreed to allocate at least $75 million in aid to the Palestinians in the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, asking the administration to release that sum, so that the Palestinian Authority could use to fight the COVID-19 spread.
“It is in the national security interest of the United States and in the interest of the Palestinian people and our ally Israel, where there are more than 1,200 confirmed cases, to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the Palestinian Territories,” the senators wrote.
The move was initiated by senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Tom Carper (D-DE), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and presidential contender Bernie Sanders of Vermont signed the letter.
Sanders wrote on Twitter on Sunday that “Palestinians in Gaza already faced hardship under a blockade. Now they're dealing with the coronavirus. My Senate colleagues and I call on Trump to send U.S. medical relief. And the Israeli government must also lift its restrictions on humanitarian aid.”
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In 2017, the Trump administration cut all funding for humanitarian projects, hospitals, infrastructure and educational initiatives benefiting the Palestinian civilian population. This also included programs in East Jerusalem, which is fully controlled by Israel and is not recognized as part of the Palestinian Authority.
But Congress decided to continue approving tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, while the administration responded by using those funds as leverage over the Palestinian leadership.
The administration, however, continued to provide only limited security assistance to the Palestinians in order to pressure the PA to accept its Middle East peace plan, and in light of Israel's request not to harm Palestinian security forces working in coordination with it to combat terrorist activities.
The senators are now warning that this policy could hurt the Palestinians’ ability to deal with the global pandemic raging across the world, which has claimed the lives of 15 Israelis so far, and is also spreading in other parts of the Middle East.
“Given the spread of the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza, the extreme vulnerability of the health system in Gaza, and the continued withholding of U.S. aid to the Palestinian people, we are concerned that the Administration is failing to take every reasonable step to help combat this public health emergency in the Palestinian Territories,” the senators added in their letter.
They also requested to know “whether the Administration has consulted with the Israeli government regarding the need to ease existing restrictions on the import into Gaza of medicines and critical health related materials and equipment,” as part of the attempt to prevent Gaza from becoming a coronavirus “hotspot."