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US restores funding to Palestinians: A lifeline for UNRWA

By restoring US funding to the Palestinian Relief Agency, the Biden administration has reversed its predecessor’s hardline stance on Palestine

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 13 Apr 2021
A lifeline for UNRWA
UNRWA assists some 5.7 million Palestinian refugees across the Middle East (photo: Reuters)
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The Biden administration announced its intention last Thursday to bring back US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN Agency that provides comprehensive humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. 

Although US President Joe Biden is not willing to pay the amount that was cut by his predecessor former president Donald Trump in 2018, his willingness to “restore credible engagement” has been welcomed by the Palestinians and by UNRWA and opposed by both Republicans in the US and Israel.

Washington used to pay UNRWA more than $300 million, but it is now willing to restore only $235 million.

“We plan to restart US economic, development and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week.

He added that US foreign assistance “serves important US interests and values” and that it was “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.”

He said his country would support the Palestinians with a package worth $75 million, which will go to both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while $10 million will be earmarked for peacebuilding programmes through USAID, the US overseas development agency.

UNRWA will have access to $150 million to meet its commitments in giving humanitarian support to the Palestinians.

The agency has provided socio-economic backing to Palestinian refugees since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Serving about five million Palestinian refugees, it provides multi-dimensional assistance in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Its programmes are directed towards the roughly 830,000 Palestinian refugees living under the poverty line, covering 45,870 emergency cash-for-work opportunities, counselling for 25,000 refugee children and “summer fun weeks” for 120,000 children to “mitigate the impact of both conflict and poverty on students’ physical and mental health and on their learning and development.”

UNRWA Chief Philippe Lazzarini said the agency “could not be more pleased that once again we will partner with the United States to provide critical assistance to some of the most vulnerable refugees across the Middle East.”

Palestinian Authority (PA) Spokesperson Ibrahim Milhem said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh had welcomed the US announcement, which emphasised US support for a two-state solution and the importance of a return to negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

“We are ready to resume diplomatic negotiations with Israel, with the help of international parties, based on international law and UN resolutions,” he said. “Any solution, however, that does not take into account Palestinian rights as enshrined by international law and UN agreements will fail.”

The Israelis and US Republicans were unhappy with the US announcement, wanting to see Trump’s approach on Palestine remain in place. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said that Israel believed “that this UN agency for so-called refugees should not exist in its current format.”

According to the US news outlet The Hill, two congressional sources said that Republicans politicians James Risch and Michael McCaul had issued an “info hold” on $75 million in economic and development assistance to the Palestinians. This step will likely lead to a delay in the delivery of aid to the Occupied Territories and Gaza Strip.

During his four years in office, Trump moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the eastern part of which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, and recognised it as Israel’s “undivided capital.”

Under Trump’s controversial peace plan, the Palestinians would also have only had their capital in East Jerusalem’s northern and eastern neighbourhoods under the security control of Israel. The plan also stipulated that a very limited number of Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homeland.

Abdel-Mahdi Metawei, a Palestinian political analyst close to the PA, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Biden’s move was a “call for all the world’s states that backed Trump to restore US support for UNRWA.”

He said that Biden might take political decisions while waiting for the new Israeli coalition government to be finalised, including reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington and restoring the US consulate that serves the Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

“Although it is not the same amount of money, implementing development projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip reflects the importance of linking the areas together,” Metawei said

 He added that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely not clash with Biden over the issue, amid Iran-related challenges and his weak political position inside Israel.

“Netanyahu is suffering today more than at any other time. He has fewer chances than before to form a new coalition, and an internal debate exists in his Likud Party on whether he should be replaced. Israel might possibly have to hold fifth Knesset elections. It hasn’t agreed on a state budget since 2019, counting on an emergency one instead,” Metawei said.

There is an ongoing inquiry by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into war crimes committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel has refused to recognise and that the Palestinians want to cooperate with.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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