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Biden Administration Restoring Hundreds of Millions in Aid to Palestinians

The administration of US President Joe Biden is restoring hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians cut during the Donald Trump years. Supporters of the move say it’s the right thing to do, both humanely and politically. Opponents say it’s morally wrong, and is pushing, if not overstepping, legal boundaries set by Congress.

The State Department announced Wednesday it would provide at least $235 million in aid to the Palestinians, following less dramatic and quieter steps taken in recent weeks to fund Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, including $15 million to vulnerable communities to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic and $75 million for economic support. The former funding was to be distributed through an American-based Catholic charity. The latter funding came without public notice.

Approximately $150 million of the total aid announced on Wednesday will be distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN agency tasked with dealing with Palestinian refugees. UNRWA has repeatedly drawn criticism, including in recent months, for distributing materials to Palestinian students in its school that exalts militants and promotes terrorism against Israelis. UNRWA’s unique structure gives refugee status in perpetuity to the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees from 1948, which detractors of the agency say perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, rather than helps solve it.

“UNRWA is a failed, corrupt institution that ensures that Palestinians who live in wretched so-called ‘refugee’ camps are left further and further behind,” Jason Greenblatt, former assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations in the Trump administration, told The Media Line.

“UNRWA leaves these Palestinians with no hope for the better future they deserve. UNRWA recipients are an ever-expanding group and it constantly runs out of funds as a result. We need to come up with an alternative solution to UNRWA. It is a big mistake for the Biden administration to restore aid to this organization which should be dismantled,” said Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s point man for the Palestinian- Israeli portfolio.

UNRWA is a failed, corrupt institution that ensures that Palestinians who live in wretched so-called ‘refugee’ camps are left further and further behind

The Biden administration, as it has done in its re-engagement with other UN agencies and global bodies, counters that it’s better to be involved with discussions about reforms while sitting on the inside.

“By resuming this assistance, we have a seat at the table. We can help drive UNRWA in the ways that we think it is in our interest and consistent with our values to do,” the State Department said in a statement sent to The Media Line.

“Obviously, there are areas where we would like to see reform. We will continue to be in a position to drive and to steer UNRWA in a direction that we think is productive and useful with this step,” the statement said.

The State Department did not state publicly that it had extracted any promises from UNRWA before restoration of the aid.

“Despite my serious concerns about transparency and accountability at UNRWA, withholding assistance that provides health care and education to children during a global pandemic risks further deteriorating an already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza made worse by Hamas,” Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and reliably pro-Israel voice, said in a statement to The Media Line.

“The (Biden) administration is committed to seeking reform of UNRWA and I’ll insist that they follow through on that commitment,” Deutsch also said.

Despite my serious concerns about transparency and accountability at UNRWA, withholding assistance that provides health care and education to children during a global pandemic risks further deteriorating an already dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza made worse by Hamas

While the Trump administration made drastic reductions in aid for the Palestinians during 2018, it did not change security assistance or halt existing economic assistance projects. That changed late in the same year with the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which stated that a defendant consents to personal jurisdiction in US federal court for lawsuits related to international terrorism if the defendant accepts certain types of US foreign aid. Unwilling to subject itself to potentially hefty lawsuits, the PA refused any further US aid. The ATCA was amended this year, now providing only that PA payments related to a terrorist act that kills or injures a US national are a trigger of consent to personal jurisdiction, opening a pathway to the restoration of some aid.

The Biden administration’s funding related to the coronavirus comes from an International Disaster Assistance basket, while UNRWA money is taken from a Migration and Refugee Assistance account. Each administration has wide discretion with regard to these baskets.

But, the remainder of Palestinian funding announced thus far by the State Department comes from the Economic Support Funds (ESF) and International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) accounts, both of which are subject to the Taylor Force Act. The 2018 law, named in honor of an American military veteran killed while he was on a trip to Israel by a Palestinian terrorist, stops US economic aid that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority until the PA ceases paying stipends through the PA Martyr’s Fund to individuals who commit acts of terrorism and to the families of deceased terrorists – the so-called pay-for-slay scheme.

“Congress earmarked for fiscal year 2020 $75 million in ESF and $75 million in INCLE funds in an appropriations bill signed into law by Trump,” Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Media Line.

“There is a real misunderstanding of the situation here. This isn’t a matter of Biden simply undoing Trump’s funding cuts. It’s Congress that decided on this funding, and it happened under a Republican Senate, with Trump signing the bill into law. Biden can’t simply ignore it. He is legally required to spend the money,” said Braunold.

Essentially, the Biden administration is compelled to distribute the money, and the ESF funding specifically needs to be spent by the end of September. Few are putting up a fuss about the INCLE money, which is seen as key to helping the PA keep its territories stable – something that is in Israel’s interests as well. The legal questions, though, revolve around what the ESF money is going toward.

The State Department, under previous Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, generated a four-pronged test to determine whether funding is of “direct benefit” to the PA.  Even so, according to the Taylor Force Act, funding to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, wastewater programs and vaccinations are exempt from legal peril.

The test includes: whether the PA is the direct recipient of the assistance; whether the assistance involves payment to PA creditors; the extent of ownership or control the PA exerts over an entity or individual that is the primary beneficiary or end user of the assistance; and whether the assistance or services provided directly replace assistance or services provided by the PA.

It’s that last test that has opponents of restored aid crying foul.

The ESF funding is going toward US Agency for International Development programs for the Palestinians which include roads, sidewalks, bus lots, emergency preparedness, adapting to climate change, community initiatives and “safe spaces to engage in community initiatives.”

There is nothing nefarious or illegal about these funding decisions

Critics of the aid say these activities are the governance responsibility of the PA, and therefore the funds violate the Taylor Force Act by the spirit of the law, if not the letter.

“The restoration of aid to the Palestinian Authority, that too is a big mistake, and may run afoul of the important Taylor Force Act. The Palestinian Authority pays Palestinians to harm and murder Israelis. Plain and simple. Unless and until the PA fully and transparently eradicates this heinous policy, no US taxpayer funds should be given to the PA,” Greenblatt said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, are the top Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively. They’ve put a procedural block on USAID’s reinstated funding, which was supposed to begin Saturday, until the State Department provides clarity on which funding programs it believes provide direct benefit to the PA and a plan to more fully vet funding so that it is not funneled to the PA, or to Hamas and other terrorist entities.

“There is nothing nefarious or illegal about these funding decisions,” says Braunold. “Don’t forget, Congress and Trump also recently passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA). So, there will be more ESF funding coming later this year,” he said.

The MEPPA will deliver $250 million over five years to USAID to finance small- and medium-sized Palestinian entrepreneurs and companies in order to promote the private sector and create jobs in the Palestinian territories, and to develop people-to-people peace-building programs that support reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

In informing Congress last month of the $75 million in economic aid, the Biden administration said the support would be used to restore the “trust and goodwill” of the Palestinians following the Trump years. The new assistance appears aimed at encouraging the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel, though there is no indication it will have that effect. Biden has not communicated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and Abbas reportedly refused to take a phone call from Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

In the meantime, the Biden administration claims it is upholding its promises to restore Palestinian aid, to help with the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to fulfill its congressionally mandated appropriations obligations. Republicans are countering that the White House is simply returning to the policies of the past, which failed to advance peace in the region and bring about any serious changes in the fortunes of the Palestinian people, let alone the Palestinian Authority.