(CNN) — The US will resume the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for Palestinians that was previously halted by the Trump administration.
Over $200 million will soon begin to flow to economic, development and humanitarian programs for the Palestinian people, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Wednesday — a move hailed by both the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports displaced Palestinians, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.
The money will go to UNRWA as well as to Covid-19 recovery efforts, support for basic needs such as food and water, support for civil society and the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, Blinken said.
“The United States is committed to advancing prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians in tangible ways in the immediate term, which is important in its own right, but also as a means to advance towards a negotiated two-state solution,” Blinken said in a statement.
This announcement reverses the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to halt almost all US assistance to Palestinians.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry responded carefully on Wednesday, refraining from outright criticism of the Biden administration and instead aiming its fire at UNRWA: “Israel’s position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution. The renewal of aid to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization,” the Ministry said in a statement.
UNRWA was founded in 1949 as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. When it began operations the following year it was responsible for about 750,000 people who had been driven from or had fled their homes during fighting in territory that became the state of Israel. The agency is also responsible for the descendants of those original refugees, meaning some 5.6 million people are currently eligible for UNRWA services, according to the UNRWA website.
Palestinians assert the right of return, and point to UN General Assembly resolution 194, passed in 1948, which states that ‘refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.’
The right of return has always been seen as one of the biggest sticking points in efforts to solve the conflict because Israel argues that, among other issues, granting the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish character of the state.
UNRWA hailed the US announcement Wednesday saying the United States had “restored its role as a decades-long friend and supporter of the UN agency,” adding that the news came at a crucial moment.
“The restoration of funds comes after recent years of severe financial crisis for UNRWA. The Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation forcing the Agency to respond to a public health crisis amid the most serious financial crisis in its history and manage its resources on a month to month basis due to unreliable funding,” a statement read.
UNRWA’s West Bank director Gwyn Lewis told CNN the agency had been forced to delay payments to staff at the end of last year, as well as scale back on investment programs, such as expenditure on new garbage collection equipment in refugee camps.
Lewis added the agency was hopeful Wednesday’s announcement would open the door to increased US contributions so that it might get back to pre-Trump funding levels of 360 million dollars per year.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh also welcomed the US policy switch and expressed the hope it could lead to renewed US efforts to try to resolve the conflict.
“We welcome the resumption of US aid to UNRWA and Palestine, and we call upon the American administration to create a new political path that meets the rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people based on international law and UN resolutions,” PM Shtayyeh tweeted.