The Biden administration announced plans Wednesday to provide at least $235m in US aid to the Palestinians, restarting funding for the United Nations agency supporting refugees and restoring other assistance cut off by former President Donald Trump.
The package, including humanitarian, economic and security aid, was announced by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as part of an effort to repair US ties with the Palestinians that all but collapsed during Trump’s tenure.
It will mark Democratic President Joe Biden’s most significant move since taking office on January 20 to make good on his promise to roll back some components of his Republican predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favor of Israel.
The plan calls for $150m through the United Nations relief agency UNRWA, $75m in US economic support in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and $10m in development funding, Blinken announced in a statement.
“The U.S. is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution,” Blinken said.
The new administration has previously pledged to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance and work towards reopening the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington, DC.
But they have moved cautiously so far, and any major steps are likely to wait for the dust to clear after Israel’s inconclusive March election, which will be followed by Palestinian elections scheduled in coming months.
The Trump administration blocked nearly all aid after it severed ties with the Palestinian Authority in 2018. The move was widely seen as an attempt to force the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on terms the Palestinian leadership branded as an effort to deny them a viable state.
The cuts came after Palestinian leaders decided to boycott the Trump administration’s peace efforts over its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, upending decades of US policy.
This included rescinding funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and relief services to about 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the Middle East.
The bulk of the restored funding will be funneled to UNRWA while separate economic aid will go through an Economic Support Fund for programs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the development money via the US Agency for International Development (USAID), according to a congressional source.
The United Nations welcomed the plan to restart UNRWA funding. “There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced to halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin … as UNRWA donors,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The notice to Congress also said Washington would resume security assistance to the Palestinians, the source said.
However, the administration is likely to hold back for now on resuming direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority while Biden’s aides consult with Congress on potential legal obstacles, according to one person familiar with the matter. The notice to Congress assured lawmakers that all assistance would be consistent with US law.
The money that will go to UNRWA does not immediately restore contributions to the $365m level that the US gave to the agency in 2017.
Most of the refugees assisted by UNRWA are descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
The growing refugee count was cited by the Trump administration in its 2018 defunding, with then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticizing UNRWA over what she called an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who developed close ties with Trump, has also called for the dismantling of UNRWA.
Soon after Biden took office, his administration began laying the groundwork for restored relations with the Palestinians as well as renewed aid. Biden’s aides are crafting a more detailed plan to reset ties, two people familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency in mid-March.
The administration announced late last month it was giving $15m to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.