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Biden restores assistance for UN Palestinian refugee agency

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration announced it would provide $235 million in US aid to the Palestinians, restarting funding for the United Nations agency supporting refugees and restoring other assistance cut off by then-President Donald Trump.

The package, including humanitarian, economic and development assistance, was detailed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as part of an effort to repair American ties with the Palestinians that collapsed during Trump’s tenure.

It marked President Joe Biden’s most significant move since taking office to make good on his promise to roll back some parts of his predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favour of Israel.

The plan calls for $150 million through the United Nations relief agency UNRWA, $75 million in US economic and development assistance and $10 million for peace-building programs, Blinken said in a statement.

Biden’s aides have also signaled that they want to re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any further major steps are likely to wait until Israel’s inconclusive March election, which will be followed by Palestinian elections scheduled in coming months.

The Trump administration blocked nearly all aid after it severed ties with the Palestinian Authority in 2018. The move was widely seen as an attempt to force the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on terms the Palestinian leadership branded as an effort to deny them a viable state.

The cuts came after Palestinian leaders decided to boycott the Trump administration’s peace efforts over its decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

This included rescinding funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and relief services to around 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the Middle East.

“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,” Blinken said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s office welcomed Biden’s commitment to a two-state solution as well as the renewed aid.  Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh wrote on Twitter: “We call upon the American administration to create a new political path that meets the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters the new funding was “extremely welcome” but said the agency was “not yet out of the woods” at a time of increased refugee needs exacerbated by COVID-19 and the crisis in Lebanon.

He said UNRWA was an “easy scapegoat” and that while the renewed funding was important, it was also important to have the United States back as “strategic partners.”

“We have been under vicious attack with a clear political objective behind it,” he said. “We are a human development and humanitarian organization operating in a highly politicized environment.”

The United Nations welcomed the restart of UNRWA funding. “There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced to halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin … as UNRWA donors,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

State Department spokesman Ned Price insisted that aid would be allocated “absolutely consistent” with US law. He pushed back against critics who have expressed concern that funds could fall into the hands of militants, especially in Gaza, where Hamas governs, saying there were safeguards in place.

US law also prohibits aid that benefits the Palestinian Authority as long as it continues to pay stipends to Palestinian prisoners held by Israel for anti-Israel attacks or to their families.

Blinken said the United States was also “resuming vital security assistance programs” with the Palestinians. He suggested that the Biden administration would seek reforms in UNRWA.