Reversing Trump, Biden restores aid to Palestinians

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The Biden administration announced on Wednesday (April 7) that it would restore hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid to Palestinians, its strongest move yet to reverse President Donald Trump’s policy on the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The package, which gives at least US$235 million (S$315 million) in assistance to Palestinians, will go to humanitarian, economic, development and security efforts in the region, and is part of the administration’s attempt to rehabilitate US relations with Palestinians, which effectively stopped when Mr Trump was in office.

In a statement on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would provide US$150 million in humanitarian aid, funnelled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a vast agency created 72 years ago to assist displaced Palestinians.

Another US$75 million would be allocated for economic development programmes in the West Bank and Gaza, and US$10 million would be for what Mr Blinken described as peace-building operations carried out by the US Agency for International Development.

“US foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important US interests and values,” Mr Blinken said. “It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability.”

The restoration of aid amounted to the most direct repudiation so far of Mr Trump’s tilt toward Israel in its decades-old conflict with the Palestinian population in Israeli-controlled territories.

Much of the initial reaction from Israeli officials revolved around Mr Biden’s decision to resume funding to the relief agency, known as UNRWA, which provides assistance to about 5.7 million people of Palestinian descent in those territories and in neighbouring countries. In 2018, Mr Trump ended the aid as his administration increasingly reshaped American policy heavily in favour of Israel.

Mr Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the United States and United Nations, denounced the Biden administration’s decision to restore funding to the agency, saying its activities were “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic” in nature.

“I have expressed my disappointment and objection to the decision to renew UNRWA’s funding without first ensuring that certain reforms, including stopping the incitement and removing anti-Semitic content from its educational curriculum, are carried out,” Mr Erdan said in a statement.

A senior Palestinian official welcomed the move but said the Palestinian leadership, based in Ramallah, still hoped Mr Biden would reverse several other measures carried out by the Trump administration.

“This is a positive, important and constructive step in the direction of rectifying Palestinian-American relations, which the Trump administration destroyed,” said Mr Ahmad Majdalani, the social development minister of the Palestinian Authority. “We believe it can be built upon by dealing with some other outstanding issues.”

Senator Jim Risch of Idaho and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, criticised the move in a joint statement, saying that “resuming assistance to the West Bank and Gaza without concessions from the Palestinian Authority undermines US interests.”

They added that they would scrutinise the package to ensure it did not breach the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits the United States from providing direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until it stops payments to families of Palestinians who commit violence against Israelis or Americans.

Mr Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesman, said Wednesday that the funding was “absolutely consistent” with US law. He indicated that any aid going to the West Bank and Gaza would be done through “development partners” and “not through governments or de facto government authorities.”

Mr Khaled Elgindy, the director of the Middle East Institute’s programme on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs, said that the decision to restore funding to the agency was “a very positive development” and would set an example for other countries as they decide whether to commit funds to it.

Despite that, Mr Elgindy said that the move focused on reversing a Mr Trump policy in the region – but did not yet appear to be part of a larger effort to advance the most difficult issues, such as discussions about a two-state solution.

“Their goal is to undo as much of the Trump legacy as possible,” he said, “and hope that that’s enough to sort of allow the issue to stabilise and not deteriorate.”