Reversing Trump, Biden restores aid to Palestinians

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced on Wednesday 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 $235 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 U.S. relations with Palestinians, which effectively stopped when Trump was in office.

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

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

“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values,” 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 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 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 neighboring countries. In 2018, Trump ended the aid as his administration increasingly reshaped American policy heavily in favor of Israel.

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,” Erdan said in a statement.

A senior Palestinian official welcomed the move but said the Palestinian leadership, based in Ramallah, still hoped 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 Ahmad Majdalani, the social development minister of the Palestinian Authority. “We believe it can be built upon by dealing with some other outstanding issues.”

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, criticized the move in a joint statement, saying that “resuming assistance to the West Bank and Gaza without concessions from the Palestinian Authority undermines U.S. interests.”

They added that they would scrutinize 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.

Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesman, said Wednesday that the funding was “absolutely consistent” with U.S. 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.”

Many humanitarian groups criticized the Trump administration for having denied the U.N. agency money that it had been expecting, which hurtled it into financial crisis. Other countries helped plug some of the shortfall, but the agency has continued to operate under severe financial constraints.

U.N. officials were clearly primed for news of the resumption of aid before it was officially announced. Asked about the Biden administration’s plan, a U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said that “there were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions,” and that “we hope the American decision will lead others to rejoin as UNRWA donors.”

Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the relief agency, “expressed gratitude” for the U.S. decision to restore funds, saying the two were “historical partners” in working together to assist Palestinian refugees.

Khaled Elgindy, the director of the Middle East Institute’s program 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, Elgindy said that the move focused on reversing a 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 stabilize and not deteriorate.”

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