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UNRWA reinstated as U.S. aid recipient

The United States pledged to restore aid to the Palestinians, almost two-thirds of it earmarked for the United Nations' relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

A view inside the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA
A view inside the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA (AN/Kai Hendry)

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration pledged to restore American foreign aid to the Palestinians on Wednesday, almost two-thirds of it earmarked for the United Nations' relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

The U.S. State Department announced the resumption of US$235 million in aid for West Bank and Gaza projects. That significantly built on a previous Biden-Harris administration pledge of US$15 million for Palestinians coping with the COVID-19 pandemic — reversing former President Trump's aid cutoff for the Palestinians.

The aid includes US$150 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA; US$75 million in economic and development aid in the West Bank and Gaza; and US$10 million for peacebuilding programs sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

America's top diplomat said the administration was pleased to "restart" U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people, consistent with U.S. law, that includes support for basic household needs, such as food and clean water, and for small and medium-size businesses.

The administration acted despite opposition from pro-Israel factions and some Republican lawmakers in U.S. Congress who argued it does not align with American interests.

"The United States is resuming support for UNRWA’s services, including education for over 500,000 Palestinian boys and girls, thereby providing hope and stability in UNRWA’s five fields of operation in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

"As with all of our engagements with U.N. 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, further undoing Trump-era policy.

"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."

The announcement came a week after the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog agency, reported USAID failed to ensure that all of its aid for Palestinians between 2015 and 2019 was screened using legally required U.S. counterterrorism criteria.

It noted the U.S. government gave US$6.3 billion in aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from 1993 until 2019. “If funding resumes, we recommend measures to improve compliance,” the GAO said in a statement.

Towards negotiations?

Since its creation in 1949 — a year after Palestinian refugees and others fled fighting when Israel was created — the U.N. agency says it has provided aid to millions of registered Palestinian refugees for basic services, including protection for 5.5 million, health care for 3.1 million and education for 532,000.

In 2017, the United States was the largest single donor with a contribution of over US$157 million, followed by the European Union's US$113 million. Combined, the U.S. and E.U. contributions made up 43% of UNRWA's total core budget.

But the former Trump administration announced in August 2018 as part of its pro-Israel stance that it was choking off hundreds of millions of dollars in traditional aid to Palestinians, including any further contributions to UNRWA.

By the start of 2019, the agency said, there was a dire need for US$1.2 billion to help Palestine refugees across the Middle East, including 620,310 that could not cover basic food needs and 389,680 others living on less than US$4 a day. In May of that year, UNRWA said more than 1 million people in Gaza were at risk of having no food.

Biden may be hoping the aid will encourage Palestinians to resume negotiations with Israel. He "affirmed that the United States supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" during a phone call with King Abdullah II of Jordan, according to a White House readout of the call on the same day the aid was announced.

Israel's foreign ministry said UNRWA "perpetuates" the conflict and needs "substantial" reform. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the aid along with Biden's support for the two-state solution.

UNRWA also praised the resumption in aid after what it called its "recent years of severe financial crisis" made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“UNRWA and the United States are historical partners in working together, alongside other generous U.N. member states, to ensure that Palestine refugees can thrive," Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA's commissioner-general, said in a statement.

"There is no other institution that does what UNRWA does," he said, "and we are committed to protecting the safety, health and future of the millions of refugees we serve."