Why are Republicans blocking Biden from resuming Palestinian aid?

Republicans say they want to ensure the aid does not breach extensive US restrictions

Arab Israelis protestors hold up the Palestinian flag in the village of Hittin as they march for the right of return for Palestinian refugees who fled their homes or were expelled during the 1948 war that followed the creation of the state of Israel, near Tiberias in northern Israel, on April 15, 2021. Israelis are marking Independence Day, celebrating the 73th year since the founding of the Jewish State in 1948 according to the Jewish calendar. / AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI
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US President Joe Biden reversed another signature Trump administration policy when he resumed $235 million in Palestinian aid this month.

But shortly after the announcement, two powerful Republican members of Congress used their authority to place a hold on much of that aid, essentially blocking at least $75m in economic and development assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip once more.

The top Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committee, James Risch and Mike McCaul, immediately used their positions to place a hold on the assistance package.

Neither Mr Risch's nor Mr McCaul's office would comment on The National's inquiry asking them to outline the specific demands they would need the Biden administration to meet to release their hold.

But a joint statement they released hours after Mr Biden attempted to resume the assistance along with analysis offered by a pro-Israel think tank in Washington offer some significant clues.

“Resuming assistance to the West Bank and Gaza without concessions from the Palestinian Authority undermines US interests,” Mr Risch and Mr McCaul wrote in the statement. “A recent Government Accountability Office report rightly calls for increased oversight of Palestinian assistance to ensure compliance with antiterrorism policies.”

The Government Accountability Office report, released in March, recommends “measures to improve compliance” with antiterrorism regulations should aid resume.

Although Congress appropriated the $75m in aid as part of a government funding bill that former president Donald Trump signed into law in 2019, Palestinian foreign assistance remains subject to an extensive set of strict regulatory laws that have piled up over decades – the most recent being the Taylor Force Act.

“We will continue to scrutinise every proposed programme to ensure the administration’s actions are in lockstep with the Taylor Force Act and in compliance with all laws governing assistance to the Palestinians,” the statement read.

Matt Zweig, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, published an analysis titled Congress Must Oversee Renewed Assistance to the Palestinians two days after Mr Risch and Mr McCaul enacted their hold.

Lobbying disclosure records reviewed by The National indicate that the think tank's advocacy arm, FDD Action, spent $20,000 between January and March lobbying Congress on a wide array of issues, including US policy on Israel.

Mr Zweig notes that the restrictions on Palestinian aid laid out in the Taylor Force Act “may come closest to prohibiting the Biden administration’s assistance package”.

A Palestinian worker looks on as he prepares bags of food supplies at an aid distribution center run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at Beach refugee camp in Gaza City April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A Palestinian worker prepares bags of food supplies at an aid distribution centre run by the UNRWA in Gaza City. Republicans say the agency provides aid to Hamas. Reuters

That legislation, named after a US Army veteran stabbed to death by a Palestinian attacker in Tel Aviv, requires the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID) to cut off economic aid that “directly benefits” the Palestinian Authority unless it ceases its so-called martyr payments to Palestinians responsible for attacks in Israel – a practice that President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to end.

The question of whether or not the aid breaches the Taylor Force Act hinges on whether the infrastructure projects proposed as part of the assistance would “directly benefit” the Palestinian Authority.

“It will depend entirely on the nature of the specific projects and associated implementers,” wrote Mr Zweig. “This is something Congress should review.”

“The administration did not appear to violate these restrictions. Still, critical questions remain about the overall package, specifically the State Department’s oversight and vetting mechanisms.”

US law also prohibits assistance to the Palestinian Authority if any part of it is controlled by Hamas, raising questions as to whether the assistance could go forward should the Islamist party prevail in elections that were initially scheduled for May 22.

Although Hamas looked favoured to prevail in the elections, Mr Abbas cancelled the vote on Thursday, blaming Israel's refusal to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote.

Palestinian children fill jerricans with drinking water from public taps at a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on July 30, 2019. An internal ethics report has alleged mismanagement and abuses of authority at the highest levels of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees even as the organisation faced an unprecedented crisis after US funding cuts.
Lacking natural resources, the Gaza Strip suffers from a chronic shortage of water, electricity and petrol. More than two-thirds of the population depends on humanitarian aid. / AFP / SAID KHATIB
Palestinian children fill jerricans with drinking water from public taps at a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. More than two thirds of the population depends on humanitarian aid. AFP 

Lastly, Mr Zweig called on Congress to "request a list of allocations" regarding a new law that allows the State Department and USAID to move ahead with global health assistance despite restrictions. The Biden administration provided $15m in Covid-19 assistance for the Palestinians in March.

At the end of the day, the Republican aid hold may not have much on-the-ground impact because USAID will likely need to spend months rebuilding its staff in the West Bank and Gaza – which the Trump administration dismantled – before obligating the $75m in assistance.

"While Congress gets the clarity it needs for this assistance to move forward, I'm sure USAID will be rebuilding its muscle on the ground that atrophied during the Trump administration as the mission dropped to a skeleton crew," Joel Braunold, the managing director of the S Daniel Abraham Centre for Middle East Peace, told The National.

“A well-staffed mission is essential given the complex vetting and contracting standards that apply to West Bank and Gaza assistance packages.”

And even if Mr Risch and Mr McCaul maintain their hold, there is a chance the Biden administration may disburse the assistance anyway.

A similar stand-off occurred during the Obama administration in 2012, when former secretary of state Hillary Clinton overruled a hold from former Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and released a $147m Palestinian aid package.

But Mr Biden's proposed Palestinian aid package also includes $150m for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – a constant source of ire for Republicans who accuse the agency of ties to Hamas. It is unclear whether the current congressional hold applies to that funding as well.

“We are disappointed that the Biden administration has decided to resume funding for UNRWA without securing any reforms from that organisation,” wrote Mr Risch and Mr McCaul.