In reverse of Trump-era policy, Biden administration restores funding to UNRWA

The Biden administration has announced its plans to reinstate millions of dollars in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), nearly three years after the Trump administration halted US funding for the agency. 

In a statement on Wednesday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US would be reinstating $150 million of aid to the agency, which has been embattled in a worsening financial crisis for years. 

In addition to the funding for UNRWA, the US announced it will be reinstating other essential aid to the Palestinians that was halted completely in 2018, after the Palestinian Authority severed ties with the Trump administration over its widely condemned decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

According to the statement, $75 million in economic and development aid will be reinstated for the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as $10 million for peacebuilding programs to be distributed through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) —  also previously defunded by the Trump administration. 

“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values,” Blinken said in the announcement. “It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners.”

Though the resumption in aid to agencies like UNRWA is still earmarked at less than half of the $365 million previously given to the agency before the Trump-era cuts,  the agency welcomed the announcement, urging other countries to follow suit. 

“The U.S. contribution comes at a critical moment, as we continue to adjust to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said in a statement, adding that 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.”

UNRWA provides essential services like healthcare and education to some 5.7 million Palestinian refugees inside Palestine and across the Middle East, though those services and others have been slashed due to lack of funding over the years. 

Up until 2018, the US was the largest donor to UNRWA ever since the agency was founded in 1949, following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and the subsequent displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinian refugees. 

Trump’s decision to stop funding the agency and other Palestinian aid was criticized by Palestinians as “political blackmail” to force them to the negotiation table and accept the parameters of Trump’s “Deal of the Century” — a “peace plan” widely regarded by Palestinians and political analysts as being extremely pro-Israel and overall detrimental to the Palestinian cause. 

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh welcomed the Biden administration’s announcement, and called on the US government to “create a new political path that meets the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people based on international law and UN resolutions.”

Israeli leaders and officials, however, blasted the move, with the Israeli Foreign Ministry saying “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution,” keeping in line with a longstanding Israeli and Trump-era talking point that UNRWA, not the 54-year Israeli occupation, perpetuates the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees around the region and the world. 

Israeli Ambassador to the US and UN Gilad Erdan released a similar statement, saying that Israel was “strongly opposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity happening in UNRWA’s facilities,” referring to the Israeli claims that UNRWA’s curriculum contains antisemitic content, accusations that the agency has called false and “baseless.”

Erdan went on to call the millions of Palestinian refugees in the region, many of whom are still living in the same refugee camps that were established more than 70 years ago by their ancestors, “so-called ‘refugees’.”

US congresswoman Ilhan Omar slammed Erdan’s comments, calling them “shameful,” saying  “Israel is a wealthy country that’s getting $3.8 billion a year from America…Yet their Ambassador has the audacity to complain about $150 million going to Palestinian refugees.”

Since coming into office, the Biden administration has signaled its intention to reinstate funds and support for the Palestinian government and humanitarian organizations, and reverse a number of Trump-era policies. 

Earlier this month, President Biden issued an executive order reversing sanctions on the International Criminal Court imposed by Trump over what his administration claimed were “illegitimate assertions of jurisdiction over personnel of the United States and certain of its allies,” specifically Israel. 

While Biden’s measures so far have been praised by the Palestinian leadership, the administration has made clear that it will not reverse some of the most controversial of Trump’s policies, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, or oppose normalization agreements between Israel and other Arab nations in the region. 


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