US to unveil $150 million in aid package to Palestinians

US to unveil $150 million in aid package to Palestinians

The United States is expected to unveil a $150 million aid package to the Palestinians on Wednesday as President Joe Biden pledged to revive the assistance to Israeli-occupied territories that was halted by former leader Donald Trump who was criticized for his pro-Tel Aviv rhetoric.

The aid, mostly to be provided through the United Nations relief agency UNWRA, is expected to be announced by the State Department as soon as Wednesday as part of an effort to repair U.S. ties with the Palestinians that all but collapsed during Trump’s tenure.

Biden has made clear he intends to roll back parts of his Republican predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favor of Israel. The new administration has previously pledged to resume hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and humanitarian assistance and work toward reopening the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington. Biden’s aides have also signaled that they want to re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But they have moved cautiously so far, and any major steps are likely to wait for the dust to clear after 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 (PA) 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 recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, upending decades of U.S. policy.

This included rescinding funding for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), 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 restored funding is expected to mostly be funneled to the UNWRA while the administration is likely to hold back for now on resuming direct economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority, the sources told Reuters.

The money that will go to the UNWRA does not immediately restore contributions to the $365 million level that the U.S. gave to the agency in 2017. Most of the refugees assisted by the UNRWA are descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.

The growing refugee count was cited by the Trump administration in its 2018 defunding, with former State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert criticizing the UNRWA over what she called an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.” Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who developed close ties with Trump, has also called for the dismantling of the UNRWA.

Soon after Biden took office on Jan. 20, his administration began laying the groundwork for restored relations with the Palestinians as well as renewed aid. Biden’s aides are crafting a more detailed plan to reset ties, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters in mid-March.

The administration announced late last month it was giving $15 million to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

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