Washington announced on Wednesday the resumption of funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), reversing a three-year halt under former president Donald Trump.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the administration, working with Congress, plans to "restart US economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people. This includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10m for peacebuilding programmes through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and $150m in humanitarian assistance for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)."
The State Department made the announcement reinstating a long-held policy that was abandoned by the previous administration.
Over the years, the US had become the largest single donor to UNRWA, giving $364m to the organisation in 2017, amounting to 30 per cent of its total funding.
The organisation oversees support for 5.5 million people across the Middle East, including schools and humanitarian facilities for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan.
The restoration of funding is part of a series of decisions the administration of US President Joe Biden is undertaking to repair ties with the Palestinians.
Part of the funding will go to support the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, whose aid had been suspended under Mr Trump.
Mr Blinken stressed that the resumption of the assistance "serves important US interests and values. It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security co-ordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners."
He reiterated the US commitment to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “it is fair to say we have been gratified by the reaction we had from members of Congress … who recognise that the aid we offer today is consistent with our interests."
“All of this aid is absolutely consistent with US law and statute,” he added.
Mr Price stressed that the development partners have an aggressive mechanism ensuring the aid will reach those who are in need and which can identify end users who will receive the assistance.
"We take UNRWA oversight seriously…I am not going to characterise what the previous administration has done.”
Mr Price added that with the resumption of aid, the US now has “a seat at the table” in engaging with UNRWA on issues of reform and accountability.
Asked by The National if regional consultations preceded this decision, Mr Price said the administration undertook "extensive consultations", including with people in region, and said that the administration hopes "to see other countries step up to the plate" in increasing their funding.
In a memo obtained exclusively by The National last month, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, outlined such steps.
“We are planning a full range of economic, security and humanitarian assistance programmes, including through [UNRWA]. Prior to the fuller launch, we plan to announce $15m in Covid-related humanitarian assistance,” the memo said.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the UN, praised the US decision.
“This would be a very needed significant amount of money to address the challenges that UNRWA is facing and perhaps it is a good omen that we are meeting today,” Mr Mansour said during online UN talks focused on Palestinian issues.
“UNRWA is an extremely important agency that deals with the needs of the Palestinian refugees in all areas of its operation in the occupied territory and outside,” said Mr Mansour.
Ghaith Al Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the resumption of aid to UNRWA is not surprising and is consistent with traditional US policy.
"The decision is in keeping with the Biden administration's approach of a gradual return to US policy that existed under multiple Democratic and Republican administrations prior to Donald Trump," Mr Al Omari told The National.
The expert and former negotiator with the Palestinian team gave it increased significance due to developments in Jordan, where a lot of this funding goes.
“Beside its symbolic importance, it will have a concrete impact on the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza, given UNRWA's extensive network of educational, health and other facilities … but it also comes at a crucial time for Jordan, which has spearheaded international efforts to fund UNRWA since the US cut off its funding,” he said.
“Recent events in Jordan have highlighted the importance of the kingdom’s stability and refunding UNRWA will contribute to supporting this crucial US ally,” Mr Al Omari added.
The Biden administration has also resumed diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority, which had been on hold since 2018.
“[The resumption of aid] means re-engagement with a strong partner who has accompanied the agency since its creation, and for decades, and the partnership has also gone beyond just a financial supporter to the agency," Philippe Lazzarini, the agency's commissioner general, said on Wednesday.
Ramallah welcomed the announcement of the aid, with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh calling on the Biden administration to work with the Quartet towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
He added that he hoped it would “open a new political horizon that leads to a Palestinian independent state.”
“We aspire not just to restore US financial assistance, which nevertheless is significant, but also to resume political ties with the United States that would fulfill our people's legitimate rights in establishing an independent state with Jerusalem as capital, reopening the US consulate in occupied Jerusalem and for the US to pressure Israel on the issue of settlement expansion in the occupied territories, especially the ethnic cleansing in occupied Jerusalem,” he said.
“Israel is strongly opposed to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity happening in UNRWA's facilities. We believe that this UN agency for so-called refugees," Israel's ambassador to the US and the UN, Gilad Erdan, said after the decision was announced.
"UNRWA is an organisation that engages in political advocacy and enables incitement to violence, therefore it should not exist in its current form," the ambassador said.
"Israel maintains an intensive dialogue with the United States on numerous issues. In this context, the US raised the renewal of American aid to the Palestinians and we discussed its impact on the common interests of Israel and the US. Regarding UNRWA, Israel's position is that the organisation in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution," the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.
"The renewal of aid to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organisation,”