US renews Palestinian ties with a tight focus: Helping people

Raneen Sawafta/Reuters
A Palestinian student raises her hand as she attends a class in a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that reopened after pandemic restrictions were eased at the Far'a refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, April 12, 2021.

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Peace processes and grand declarations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were once expected of American presidents. Yet nearly three years after the Trump administration abruptly ended U.S. financial assistance to Palestinians, the Biden administration currently has more modest aims. With the paths to political progress currently closed, it is focusing on humanitarian goals.

In its first overture to the Palestinians, the Biden administration has announced $235 million in financial assistance, including, most urgently, $150 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which serves 5.75 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

Why We Wrote This

The resumption of U.S. aid to Palestinians marks a return, the Biden administration says, to an intersection of American values and interests. Does that provide a path to peace someday?

Fares Arouri, an economist in Ramallah in the West Bank, describes the resumption in U.S. aid as a welcome return to Obama-era policies that also opens up room for dialogue between Palestinians and Americans that was closed under President Donald Trump. Yet the resumption of funding is a long way off from another U.S.-led peace process.

“I don’t think this move is enough to generate political progress towards a settlement. That would require a much heavier political lift and a major amount of political capital I am not sure the Biden administration is willing to invest,” says Khaled Elgindy, an expert at the Middle East Institute. The administration is “doing the absolute bare minimum needed to be seen as credible.”

The crowded Baqaa refugee camp north of Amman, Jordan, home to more than 100,000 residents, is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world.

Which is why, nearly three years after the Trump administration abruptly ended seven decades of U.S. financial assistance to Palestinians – part of a pressure campaign to coerce Palestinian leadership to accept its proposed “peace plan” – the State Department chose Baqaa for the ceremonial resumption this week of U.S. humanitarian relief.

One piece of that renewed assistance is $150 million in funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, to support its health, education, and housing for Palestinian refugees across the region.

Why We Wrote This

The resumption of U.S. aid to Palestinians marks a return, the Biden administration says, to an intersection of American values and interests. Does that provide a path to peace someday?

For Palestinians like Faris Haj Hamad, a resident of the Qadura refugee camp in the West Bank, it’s a step that has an immediate impact on their lives.

When Mr. Hamad lost his job as a waiter last year, as COVID-19 battered his home, he had one last lifeline and concern: U.N. health services.

“We don’t have good clinics anymore, and we don’t have any other options,” says Mr. Hamad. “We need these American funds to get relief.”

While peace processes and grand declarations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were once expected of American presidents, the Biden administration currently has more modest aims – to “do no harm” in a dispute in which the paths to political progress are currently closed. Instead, it is focusing on humanitarian goals.

After three years of severed ties and strained relations, the United States and the Palestinians are reuniting on an immediate, more tangible issue: improving lives.

Yet along with the injection of much-needed relief, Palestinians hope Washington’s reengagement creates a future opening to relaunch peace talks when conditions are ripe.

Although the Palestinians have not reopened their diplomatic office in Washington, closed in 2018 by the Trump administration, contacts between the new U.S. administration and Palestinian officials have been underway since January. They are the first talks between Washington and Ramallah in more than two years, and much needs to be done to restore the Palestinians’ trust.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
A picture taken with a drone shows Palestinian houses and buildings at the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City, April 6, 2021.

In its first overture to the Palestinians, the Biden administration last week announced $235 million in financial assistance, including $75 million in development aid, $10 million to the Palestinian Authority to help combat COVID-19, and the $150 million to UNRWA.

The most urgent funds are to UNRWA, which has struggled since President Donald Trump cut nearly $300 million in annual American support for its services to 5.75 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

“U.S. interests and values”

Traditionally, America was the largest donor to the agency as part of a recognized collective responsibility until a just and enduring solution to the conflict is reached.

“U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the resumption of aid, noting the “critical relief to those in great need.”

Rather than speaking of a peace process, Secretary Blinken has, in a previous phone call with the Israeli foreign minister, expressed “the administration’s belief that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”

It is a policy aimed at lessening hardships until “both sides take steps that create a better environment in which actual negotiations take place.”

And it is a message that is resonating with many beleaguered Palestinians – for now.

Fares Arouri, an economist in Ramallah, describes the resumption in U.S. aid as a welcome return to Obama-era policies and a “highly needed” boost to stabilize UNRWA services that also opens up room for dialogue between Palestinians and Americans that was closed under Mr. Trump. 

“We see the resumption of U.S. support to UNRWA as in line with the administration’s foreign policy outlook, which focuses on openness and dialogue with all parties, with little deviation from the Obama and Clinton-era policies,” he says.

And Ahmed Abu Holy, PLO commissioner for refugee affairs, while noting that the renewed U.S. aid would help UNRWA resume its “vital humanitarian role” during the pandemic, says the move “shows that the U.S. is beginning to reassert its role in the region.”

Mr. Abu Holy also cites “positive and promising” conversations with Richard Albright, the U.S. assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

Far from a peace process

Yet the resumption of funding, State Department officials admit and observers caution, is a long way off from another U.S.-led peace process.

“I don’t think this move is enough to generate political progress towards a settlement. That would require a much heavier political lift and a major amount of political capital I am not sure the Biden administration is willing to invest,” says Khaled Elgindy, director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs.

The administration is “doing the absolute bare minimum needed to be seen as credible and to undo the most damaging aspects of the previous administration’s policies by restoring aid to UNRWA,” he says.

Nevertheless, he allows, the moves are “enough to begin the process of reestablishing bilateral ties with the Palestinians on some levels, and the Palestinian leadership have been very positive about the Biden administration.”

Courtesy of UNRWA
U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Henry T. Wooster (left) and Dr. Khalil Abu Naqeera (center), chief medical officer at the Baqaa UNRWA health center, speak during a tour of the center at an event to relaunch American aid to UNRWA at the Baqaa refugee camp north of Amman, Jordan, April 12, 2021.

Yet while the leadership and beleaguered Palestinians welcome the return of aid, perceptions of the U.S. and of American policy among Palestinians are slow to shift, if at all. Many say the U.S. retains a one-sided approach favoring Israel that they believe was laid bare by the Trump administration.

In a March 14-19 poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a majority of Palestinians surveyed, 50.7%, said they did not expect U.S. policy on the Mideast conflict to be “more balanced” under Mr. Biden than it was under Mr. Trump, compared with 42.3% who said they did.

And in the same poll, by 47.8% to 43.6%, a plurality said they would not return to a U.S.-led peace process with Israel.

Much-needed relief

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Henry T. Wooster visited the beleaguered UNRWA health center at the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan. There to launch the renewed U.S. aid, he appeared in a show of solidarity with UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini. 

In a testament to the centrality of U.S. assistance for UNRWA operations, a plaque bearing Ambassador Wooster’s name hangs at the health center commemorating a 2016 expansion, one of the last major U.S.-funded projects in the camp before Mr. Trump cut aid.  

Today, the challenges confronting clinic administrators are significant. While creative bookkeeping kept this and 142 other health centers open after the U.S. withdrew funding in 2018, the budget cuts and then the pandemic placed an added burden on the clinic’s staff of 42.

Neonatal mortality and chronic diseases are on the rise among camp residents, staff say. Medical staff and Mr. Lazzarini admit they cannot afford staff members getting sick. Last week a physician at the Baqaa health center died of complications from COVID-19.

“We are front-line workers, and we should have more staff to lessen our hours and contact with patients, but there simply hasn’t been the funds,” says Dr. Khalil Abu Naqeera, the health center director. 

“For the American government to show this amount of care and visit us, it obviously presents a more positive image of the U.S. than previous years. We are happy with the American funding. But we hope it lasts,” he says.

“To have a country like the United States backing you, it gives us a sense of relief, a morale boost,” says Osama Hajj-Ali, who heads the center’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

“At the end of the day, it makes you feel that a strong state has your back.”

Yet many Palestinians also express wariness of what they worry is a politicization of humanitarian aid and a lack of political support.

“What is to stop the next president from suddenly cutting off our aid and pressuring us all over again?” asks Mohammed Ali, a Baqaa camp resident. “Why should our lives be a political issue?”  

“When the U.S. bailed out on UNRWA, it cut services,” says Hussein Elayyan, a local official at the Jalazone refugee camp north of Ramallah. “We will not dance and celebrate their decision to give us money again.

“If America supports UNRWA, we will not say no,” he says. “But this is humanitarian aid. ... It is not political.”

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