Biden restores US aid to Palestinian refugee agency

The Joe Biden administration will provide $150 million to support the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency, a partial restoration of the funding slashed by President Donald Trump more than two years ago.

“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday. 

The fresh funding includes $75 million in economic and development assistance for the impoverished West Bank and Gaza Strip, $10 million for peace-building programs through the US Agency for International Development and $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

UNRWA provides food assistance and essential services to an estimated 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the Palestinian territories as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Describing UNRWA as “an irredeemably flawed operation,” Trump announced in 2018 that the United States would cut off funding to the refugee agency.

The loss of US support plunged UNRWA into its worst financial crisis in the organization’s 70-year history and forced cutbacks on critical programs such as health care and schooling. 

In a statement, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini welcomed the renewed US contribution, adding, “There is no other institution that does what UNRWA does.”

“UNRWA 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,” Lazzarini said.

With an annual contribution of about $360 million, the United States had long been the agency’s biggest donor, accounting for about a third of UNRWA’s annual budget. The Trump administration said it was no longer willing to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden and complained that too many people benefit from UNRWA.

Those served by UNRWA are mostly descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians forced to leave their homes during the 1948 war that established the State of Israel. Critics say UNRWA’s definition of “refugee” is too broad. 

“The United States is deeply committed to ensuring that our partnership with UNRWA promotes neutrality, accountability and transparency,” Blinken said in a statement. “As with all of our engagements with UN 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.” 

In addition to halting aid to UNRWA, Trump also cut more than $200 million in assistance for the Palestinians in 2018, including $25 million earmarked for east Jerusalem hospitals. Ramallah decried the cuts as a pressure tactic to force the Palestinian Authority into accepting a US-sponsored peace plan seen as favoring Israel.

The restoration of aid to UNRWA on Wednesday fulfills a campaign pledge from Biden, who promised to restore relations with the Palestinians. Last month, his administration announced it would provide $15 million in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the West Bank.

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