WASHINGTON– The Biden administration announced that it would provide $235 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinians, restarting funding for the United Nations agency caring for refugees and restoring other assistance cut off by former President Donald Trump.
The bulk of the money will go through the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which received $150 million. Another $10 million will be disbursed through USAID for peace-building programmes; and $75 million will fund economic and development assistance in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Security assistance programmes also will restart.
“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,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
It marked Democratic President Joe Biden’s most significant move since taking office on Jan. 20 to make good on his promise to roll back some parts of his Republican predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favour of Israel.
Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA’s Commissioner General, said, “The U.S. contribution comes at a critical moment, as we continue to adjust to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents. We encourage all Member States to contribute to UNRWA.”
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, “We hope that others will now follow suit. There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin UNRWA as UNRWA donors.”
Israel, meanwhile, criticized the move, repeating longstanding allegations that UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and is in need of major reform before support can be restored 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 aid to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization.”
UNRWA supports some 5.5 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, providing education and primary health care, as well as humanitarian and social services.
Despite persistent funding shortfalls, staff have maintained all critical services, Lazzarini said, thus rendering the agency “a pillar of stability” for those who depend on its operations.
Gwyn Lewis, Director of UNRWA Operations in the West Bank, said 2020 was incredibly challenging, with the looming threat of annexation, leading to a breakdown in coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority early in the year. And then the pandemic hit.
“We have seen a quite dramatic impact on the economy”, she said, outlining some of the damage, such as a decline in household incomes and rising unemployment, which has reached 23 per cent in the West Bank and 49 per cent in Gaza.
These dire socio-economic conditions are occurring in parallel with issues related to the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory, and the more than decade-long blockade on Gaza.