US restores less than half of pre-Trump funding to UNRWA

An UNRWA employee distributes food aid in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, in September 2020.

Ashraf Amra APA images

The US will resume economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, providing a total of $235 million, the State Department announced on Wednesday.

The department said that $75 million would be allocated to “economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza.” Another $10 million would go to “peacebuilding programs.”

Washington will restore $150 million to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees. That figure represents less than half of the annual funding the US sent to UNRWA before the Trump administration eliminated support to the agency in 2018.

Trump cut aid to Palestinians across the board in punishment for protests against the US declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The aid cuts were seen as part of a wider strategy of bludgeoning Palestinians into submitting to the White House’s “peace” process.

Until Trump’s cuts, the US was the largest funder to UNRWA since its establishment in 1949. Prior to 2018, the US gave $365 million to the agency each year, representing nearly a third of UNRWA’s budget.

The resulting deficit threw the already cash-strapped agency into an unprecedented crisis while the need for its services among the Palestinian refugee population only increased.

“Critical moment”

UNRWA serves nearly 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, welcomed the resumption of funding, which had been anticipated. “There is no other institution that does what UNRWA does,” he said.

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

Israel protested the announcement, with Gilad Erdan, its ambassador to the US, smearing UNRWA as “an anti-Semitic agency that incites against Israel.”

Erdan asserted that “the twisted definition used by the agency to determine who is a ‘refugee’ only perpetuates the conflict.”

UNRWA serves multiple generations of Palestinian refugees as Israel has prohibited them from exercising their right to return to the lands and homes from which they were expelled.

Israeli leaders and pro-Israel hardliners, in their quest to liquidate the rights of Palestinian refugees, have long subjected UNRWA to relentless smear campaigns, falsely claiming the agency teaches anti-Israel “incitement” or harbors weapons in its schools.

Meanwhile, Israel has repeatedly targeted UNRWA schools in its assaults on Gaza and has massacred Palestinian civilians, including children, who have sought shelter in them.

Erdan was echoing a claim, previously trotted out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, that Palestinian refugees only exist because a special UN agency – UNRWA – was created to care for them, and not because Israel denies their internationally recognized right to return.

Anti-Palestinian lawmakers in US Congress are also pushing back against the Biden administration’s resumption of funding halted by Trump.

Federal law enacted in 2018 effectively prohibits assistance to the Palestinian Authority “unless it agrees to pay court judgments of sometimes up to hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of American victims of Palestinian attacks.”

Another law bans aid to the PA so long as it pays stipends to the families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel for “acts of terrorism.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “all assistance will be provided consistent with US law.”

The State Department added that it was “also resuming vital security assistance programs.” The Trump administration withdrew funding from the Palestinian Authority’s security forces last year.

US military aid to Israel

The $235 million pledged by the Biden administration to aid Palestinians is a pittance compared to the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the US provides to Israel without restriction.

That aid is used to purchase American-made weapons that are employed against Palestinians to maintain Israel’s military occupation.

American weaponry has been used by Israel to perpetrate war crimes against Palestinian civilians and to destroy civilian infrastructure.

The International Criminal Court launched an investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last month.

Last week, the US lifted economic sanctions on ICC personnel, including the chief prosecutor, that had been imposed by the Trump administration.

While removing the punitive measures, the US reiterated its opposition to the ICC’s investigation in Palestine while claiming to support the “rule of law, access to justice and accountability for mass atrocities.”

Yet a State Department spokesperson was only able to sputter out a boilerplate commitment to the two-state solution when AP reporter Matt Lee repeatedly asked “where do they go?” given that Palestinians cannot seek justice in Israeli courts.

On Thursday, Israel announced that it will not cooperate with the ICC investigation.

In March, the court had notified Israel of its intention to investigate, giving it a month to inform the ICC whether it was conducting its own probes into alleged crimes.

Netanyahu’s office said that it would instead send a letter to the court “completely rejecting the claim that Israel commits war crimes.”

There has been a long line of international commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions determining that Israel has committed international crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The recommendations of those investigatory mechanisms have never been implemented as Israel’s impunity has been ensured by the US and other allies.

Israeli lawmakers pledged to commit new war crimes on the eve of the country’s elections last month.

This article has been corrected to reflect that the US gives $3.8 billion in military assistance to Israel per year.


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.