By Adam Andrzejewski
Since 1950, U.S. taxpayers have sent over $6.3 billion through the United Nations to subsidize Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. In 2016, the last year of the Obama Administration, the U.S. sent $359 million in Palestinian aid, only $39 million less than 2014’s all-time high of $398.7 million.
President Donald Trump cut the Palestinian aid to zero in 2018 – which had never been tried in the 71-year history of funding the region. In response, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said U.S. taxpayers had violated an international obligation to fund them.
In April 2021, President Joe Biden agreed with the PLO, not Trump, and restarted aid to the Palestinians. Weeks later, rockets were again landing on Israelis and the region was at war.
Even a May 14, 2021, Associated Press (AP) headline seemed to conflate the events, “U.S. sending new aid to Palestinians as conflict intensifies.”
Did U.S. funding play a role? It’s a difficult question to answer, but we are following the money. Soon, we’ll publish our comprehensive OpenTheBooks Oversight Report – U.S. Foreign Aid.
Here is a quick summary and simple timeline of U.S.-Palestinian aid:
- Last month, Biden announced a $115 million Palestinian-aid package – including $40 million from FY2016 and FY2017 funding and $75 million from FY2020.
- Then, yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $110 million in new economic assistance to Palestinians including $5.5 million in immediate relief to Gaza.
- In recent years, the Trump Administration had frozen or reprogrammed that previously appropriated congressional funding.
- One catalyst for cutting funding was the PLO policy of paying pensions to families of dead terrorists – that they call “martyrs.” The Wall Street Journal called this practice, “pay for slay.”
- Since 1950, U.S. taxpayers have sent over $6 billion through the United Nations (UN) to the Palestinian refugees [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)].
The U.S. is UNRWA’s largest funder, providing almost one-third of its budget. Created to help the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, UNRWA today subsidizes over five million Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
We found that the UNRWA received more funds from the Obama Administration than any other administration in its 71-year existence. In 2014 and 2015, Congress and President Obama provided $398.7 million and $390.5 million, respectively. In FY2016 and FY2017, funding hovered around $359 million a year. However, in the first fiscal year of the Trump Administration, the subsidies fell to $65 million (FY2018).
And then it went to zero.
A Timeline of Key Events:
March 2016: U.S. tourist and former U.S. Army officer and veteran Taylor Force, was murdered in a stabbing attack in the West Bank. Bashar Masalh, Force’s murderer, was killed by police, but the PLA paid Masalh’s family a monthly pension it pays to so-called “martyrs.”
December 2017: President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced his intention to move the U.S. embassy there, at which point the PLO broke off diplomatic contacts with the United States.
January 2018: The U.S. released $65 million to UNRWA.
January 25, 2018: President Trump, sitting next to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was hopeful for peace in the Middle East and noted that the U.S. gives “hundreds of millions of dollars” of aid and support to the Palestinians.
President Trump noted, “that money is on the table. That money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace. Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re gonna have to want peace, too, or we’re gonna have nothing to do with them any longer.”
March 2018: Congress suspended economic assistance to the Palestinians (through the Economic Support Fund (ESF)) unless and until Palestinian officials ceased payments to convicted terrorists serving in Israeli prisons and ceased paying families of “deceased terrorists …who died committing acts of terrorism[.]”
The provision, included in the March 2018 consolidated appropriations legislation (Title X of Public Law 115-141), was called the Taylor Force Act. Congress specifically exempted and thus allowed funds to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, up to $5 million for wastewater projects, and up to $500,000 for childhood vaccination efforts.
May 14, 2018: The United States officially relocated the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
May-July 2018: 289 rockets and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory, each time resulting in Israeli military retaliation against Hamas targets in Gaza.
August 2018: We learned that President Trump directed (at some point earlier in the year) an overall review of U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and in Gaza.
August 31, 2018: the Trump Administration froze all further U.S. funding to UNRWA and released an official statement that spoke about “disproportionate” budgetary burdens, flawed “fiscal practices,” and unsustainable “exponentially expanding” beneficiaries.
The Administration also announced it reprogrammed an estimated $232 million in FY2017 economic support funding (ESF) originally planned for the West Bank and Gaza to “high-priority projects elsewhere[.]”
Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the PLO, said, “By cutting aid, the U.S. is violating international law …and there is an international obligation to assist and support it until all the problems of the Palestinian refugees are solved.”
Erekat added: “Some may argue that it is U.S. taxpayers’ money and that it is up to them how it is spent. But by the same token, who gave Trump the damn right to steal my land and my capital and my future and my aspirations and my freedom by deciding to blindly support the occupying power called Israel?”
Ambassador Husam Zomlot, head of the PLO General Delegation to the United States, said in a statement: “Weaponizing humanitarian and developmental aid as political blackmail does not work.”
In contrast, Israel praised the decision with Netanyahu calling it a “welcome and important change.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon tweeted “UNRWA perpetuates the myth of the eternal ‘refugee’ status of the Palestinians. The sole purpose is sustaining an illegitimate instrument aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel. @UNRWA is part of the problem, not of the solution. @IsraelMFA”.
September 6, 2018: President Trump said on a Rosh Hashanah teleconference with Jewish Faith Leaders:
“I stopped massive amounts of money that we were paying to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leaders. We were—the United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying. And that’s going to have a little impact.
I said, ‘By the way, did you ever do that before?’ I said to some of the past negotiators. ‘Did you ever do that before? Did you ever use the money angle?’ They said: ‘No, sir. We thought it would be disrespectful.’ I said: ‘I don't think it's disrespectful at all. I think it’s disrespectful when people don’t come to the table.
So we're doing that. And I really do believe we’re going to make a deal, Alan [Dershowitz]. I hope so. It would be a great thing to do.”’
September 9, 2018: Reuters reported the U.S. was reprogramming $25 million originally programed for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network.
October 2018: President Trump signed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which created new legal avenues to pursue legal judgements against the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) if Americans were killed by Palestinian terrorism.
December 2018: The PA informed the United States that it would not accept U.S. aid that subjected it to U.S. federal court jurisdiction. Consequently, all bilateral aid from the U.S. to the Palestinians ended on January 31, 2019.
January-December 2019: According to the UN’s calendar-year reporting system, Germany contributed the most of any country in the world in 2019, giving $138 million to UNRWA ($167 million donation in 2018), followed by the UK at $76 million ($93 million in 2018). Saudi Arabia’s contribution fell from $115 million in 2018 to $74 million in 2019. The United States officially gave $0, however, was listed as contributing just $67,861.
May 4-5, 2019: 450 rockets were fired from Gaza over a two-day period, the largest number of rockets launched since the fall of 2014.
November 12, 2019: 190 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel.
December 2019: Congress decided to walk back its legal hook against the PLO and PA and put a provision deep inside the 716-page Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, called the “Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act of 2019 (P.L. 116-94, section 903).
Gone was the broad hook that subjected Palestinians to U.S. lawsuits if they accepted U.S. foreign aid.
Inserted was a narrow hook that if a terrorist-related act injured a U.S. national, it would trigger U.S. jurisdiction. President Trump signed the overall bill, but included a signing statement that this provision might interfere with his “constitutional authorities to articulate the position of the United States in international negotiations...”
February 23-24, 2020: 90 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel.
September 15, 2020: 13 rockets were launched at Israel, while the White House hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the signing of a peace deal with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Fast forward to April 7, 2021: President Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, released a statement announcing resumed U.S. foreign aid funding to UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian account:
“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people. This includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
We are also resuming vital security assistance programs. All assistance will be provided consistent with U.S. law… This funding is in addition to the $15 million in humanitarian assistance to address the COVID-19 pandemic and food insecurity the United States announced in March.”
April 23, 2021: 36 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel. Israel responded with military strikes.
May 2021: Protests erupted over an anticipated Israeli court decision, rocks were thrown at Israeli police forces, who responded at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the holy Temple Mount. Hamas issued an ultimatum that security forces be withdrawn and fighting ensued.
May 10-21, 2021: At least 4,000 rockets were fired toward Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip. Hundreds fell short and hit Gaza itself. The Israeli military destroyed multiple targets and buildings inside Palestinian territories.
May 14, 2021: The AP published a story with the headline “US sending new aid to Palestinians as conflict intensifies.”
May 20, 2021: A forthcoming cease-fire announced.
May 20, 2021: U.S. President Joe Biden announced a cease fire and that the U.S. was committed to providing “rapid humanitarian assistance” to Gaza and the Gaza reconstruction efforts in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. “We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority – not Hamas, the Authority – in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
Note: A source used in the piece was from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), April 14, 2021.