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US restores $235 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians blocked by Trump

US restores $235 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians blocked by Trump
© AFP/Pool

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenKoch groups call on administration to release all temporary worker visas Technical snafus disrupt Biden climate summit As leaders hail climate ambitions, activists warn of devastation now MORE announced Wednesday the U.S. will restore $235 million in assistance to the Palestinians, with the bulk of the funds benefiting the United Nations program for Palestinian refugees.

The move marks a sharp turn away from the Trump administration, which in 2018 ended all funding for Palestinians and humanitarian programs that benefit Palestinian refugees.

Blinken said providing such assistance “serves important U.S. interests and values” and is part of efforts by the administration to advance a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. 

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“It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability,” he said in a statement. 

“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.”

The secretary also encouraged other donors to support programs and activities that benefit “Israelis and Palestinians alike.” 

The move by the Biden administration will provide $75 million in economic development and $10 million in people-to-people projects, distributing funds already appropriated by Congress in 2020. This is on top of $15 million the administration earlier announced to help NGOs working with Palestinians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The secretary said a portion of the funding will support the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, assistance that was cut by the previous administration.  

Blinken said the U.S. will also restart contributions to security assistance programs, part of a program that coordinates with Palestinian and Israeli security forces in the region. A congressional source earlier told The Hill the funds include $40 million that was frozen in 2016 and 2017. 

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But the largest tranche of funds, $150 million, will go to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main international organization serving an estimated 5.7 million Palestinians across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. 

Blinken said the U.S. is “deeply committed” to ensuring the 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,” he said.

Elizabeth Campbell, director of the UNRWA Representative Office in Washington, welcomed the move. 

“The funding will absolutely greatly benefit these populations, our systems infrastructure, programs in each of these locations,” she said.  

“It is absolutely a very positive and welcome announcement that will contribute toward UNRWA’s financial stability. We will still have challenges in meeting our budget requests for this year, but we see it as a really significant step toward doing that.”  

Trump eliminated funding for UNRWA in 2018 in a move that was then welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and his allies, who accuse the organization of perpetuating Palestinian claims to refugee status and say its education materials contribute to incitement against Israel. 

The U.S. at that time provided about 30 percent of the funding for UNRWA and in 2017 contributed about $360 million. Campbell said the shortfall in funding caused the agency to eliminate about $500 million of services. 

“UNRWA is a humanitarian organization. We’re a civilian organization; we provide civilian services to a very vulnerable refugee population, humanitarian development services,” Campbell said.

“What has been extremely difficult is to have been thrust into a hyper political lane, if you will, where we don’t belong.”

Yet the move by Biden to restore funding was quickly condemned by Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. Gilad Erdan, who said that UNRWA promotes “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities.” 

“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,” Erdan said in a statement.

He added that he has spoken with the State Department opposing the resumption of funding and called for reforms, including stopping incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from UNRWA educational curriculum. 

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“UNRWA is an organization that engages in political advocacy and enables incitement to violence, therefore it should not exist in its current form,” he said.  

UNRWA provides education for an estimated 530,000 Palestinian children and says its curriculum is “consistent with the values and principles of the United Nations (UN) and promotes human rights, tolerance, equality and nondiscrimination of race, gender, language and religion.” 

But the agency is criticized for using the textbooks of its “host country” that may contribute to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. The organization Impact-SE, a Jerusalem-based education, policy, and advocacy organization, said it has documented troubling themes in UNRWA curriculum.

According to a report published in January, Impact-SE says it has consistently documented textbooks to have a “systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects” including in math and science books. The educational materials also reject the possibility of peace with Israel, the organization states, and omit historical Jewish presence in modern-day territories of Israel and territories under the control of the Palestinian Authority.