UNRWA welcomes US restored aid to Palestinians

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US assistance to the Palestinians “serves important US interests and values”.
Thursday 08/04/2021
A Palestinian woman leaves a health centre run by tUNRWA, at al-Fari’ah refugee camp, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 8, 2021. (REUTERS)
A Palestinian woman leaves a health centre run by tUNRWA, at al-Fari’ah refugee camp, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 8, 2021. (REUTERS)

WASHINGTON / AMMAN - The cash-strapped UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA Thursday praised President Joe Biden for resuming US financial support, saying it came at a “critical moment” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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,” the agency’s commissioner general, Philippe Lazzarini, said in a statement.

“The US contribution comes at a critical moment, as we continue to adjust to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic presents.”

The Biden administration’s decision to restore US aid to the Palestinians to the tune of $235 million marked a sharp break with the policy of his staunchly pro-Israeli predecessor Donald Trump who severed all financial assistance.

Its decision to earmark $150 million of that for UNRWA drew particular anger from Israel, which argues that the agency serves to perpetuate the idea of a Palestinian refugee problem in a way that undermines the Jewish state.

“We believe that this UN agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format,” said the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan.

“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.

Asked about the Israeli criticism, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the United States took oversight of UNRWA “extraordinarily seriously” and that it would now have “a seat at the table.”

The UNRWA chief said renewed US support would help the agency to “fulfil our mandate to educate and provide primary health care to millions of refugees every day”.

“There is no other institution that does what UNRWA does and we are committed to protecting the safety, health and future of the millions of refugees we serve,” Lazzarini said.

Trump’s decision to sever all aid had left an enormous hole in UNRWA’s finances.

Around 40 countries initially helped fill the gap, but contributions have since diminished and the pandemic has also taken a financial toll on donor countries.

The new US aid pledge is still well below the $355 million contributed to UNRWA in 2016 by the United States, then its largest contributor.

The State Department spokesman did not rule out further US contributions but said the United States was encouraging other donors to do more.

Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) speaks to the media in Amman, Jordan. (REUTERS)
Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) speaks to the media in Amman, Jordan. (REUTERS)

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric welcomed the restored US assistance, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said it “sends the right signal” amid growing needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

— Political shift —

In his sharpest break on the conflict yet from the staunchly pro-Israeli Donald Trump, Democratic US President Joe Biden said Wednesday the United States would resume funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees that his predecessor had severed.

In a call with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a longstanding US ally who recently faced down dissent within the royal family, Biden “affirmed that the United States supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” a White House statement said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US assistance to the Palestinians “serves important US interests and values” as “a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.”

“It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability,” Blinken said in a statement.

The Palestinian leadership said it hoped that the aid would mark the start of a concerted effort by Biden to pressure Israel, including on stopping settlements in the occupied West Bank.

“We are eagerly awaiting the resumption, not only of financial assistance, but of political relations with the United States to allow the Palestinian people to achieve their legitimate rights for an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital,” said Mohammed Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister.