President Biden and his team have made no secret of the fact that at the top of their list of priorities with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reversing President Trump’s policy of freezing all aid to the West Bank and Gaza. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced last week that the U.S. would provide $15 million in COVID-19 assistance to the Palestinians, and yesterday the State Department announced another $235 million in economic and humanitarian assistance. Included in that money is $150 million in funding to UNRWA and $75 million in Economic Support Funds, and it was announced that security assistance would resume as well, reported to initially be $40 million to the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF). The decision to resume economic, humanitarian, and security assistance to the Palestinians has come under criticism, with some Members of Congress and others questioning whether, owing to the provisions of the Taylor Force Act, it is legal for the U.S. to spend any money in the West Bank and Gaza that benefits Palestinians in any way. While this assertion is incorrect and rests on a basic misunderstanding of the Taylor Force Act, there is a larger point at play about why it is in the U.S.’s interests to provide assistance to the Palestinians in targeted ways.
Much of the confusion about U.S. funding to the Palestinians stems from two factual mistakes that have become so widespread that it is unclear whether those making them even know that they are doing so. The first is that the U.S. is about to fund the Palestinian Authority, which is false. Direct budgetary support to the PA was ended by the Obama administration in 2014, and the U.S. has not funded the PA since; not under President Obama, not under Trump, and not now under Biden. The wild rhetoric about the U.S. funding terrorism or corruption does not even hinge on what your view is of the PA and its behavior, since aside from the PA security forces–and more on that in a moment–we are not funding the PA, full stop.
The second mistake is to suggest that by resuming economic support to Palestinian NGOs and healthcare organizations and resuming security assistance to the PASF, the Biden administration is doing something illegal and violating the Taylor Force Act. This is also false, and one need only to read the text of Taylor Force to see why; Taylor Force prohibits economic assistance for the West Bank and Gaza that directly benefits the PA, and that is it. The upshot of this is that economic assistance that does not directly benefit the PA, any type of humanitarian assistance, and any type of security assistance is okay, and Taylor Force even makes explicit exceptions for economic assistance that does directly benefit the PA if it goes to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, childhood vaccinations, or wastewater projects. Lara Friedman has an excellent and detailed overview of Taylor Force and why the argument that the Biden administration is about to violate it is nonsensical, so no need for me to reinvent the wheel, but suffice it to say that invoking Taylor Force to argue about any and all funding to the West Bank and Gaza is the equivalent of getting a flu shot in order to protect against COVID-19.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more critically, the aid that the administration is planning to spend directly in the West Bank and Gaza was already appropriated by Congress–as a direct earmark for the first time–and signed into law by Trump himself last year, more than two years after Taylor Force became law. This is not new money that the Biden administration is pulling out of thin air, but money that the previous administration either did not spend (in the case of security assistance) or approved on its way out. Not only that, but when it comes to security assistance for the PASF, both the Trump administration and Congress jumped through hoops to make sure that money could be provided and would be accepted by the PA after the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act passed in 2018 and everyone realized after the fact that it would prevent the PASF from accepting U.S. funding. At that point, the Trump White House–reportedly following a plea from the Israeli government–lobbied Congress to amend the law, and the amended version passed the Republican-controlled Senate and was signed into law by Trump. There is no question that Biden’s policies are different than Trump’s and that he has a vastly different posture on aid to the West Bank and Gaza. But the idea that this is illegal or even a subversion of Congress’s will, when Congressional legislation allows these types of funds to be spent and the last Congress appropriated this money in the current fiscal year–before Biden took office and before the current Democratic-controlled Congress was elected–raises questions about whether those making these arguments understand what exactly it is that they are arguing.
Beyond the specific issue of where this money is coming from and whether it is legal, there is a larger policy question about whether assistance to the Palestinians makes sense. Here too, the debate on both sides tends to rest more on bombast than on a calculation of American interests. Providing assistance to Palestinian hospitals or to aid workers is not supporting terrorism, and invoking the actions of the Palestinian government in arguing that the U.S. cannot and should not help alleviate human suffering is a sleight of hand that relies on bad faith and promotes collective punishment. By the same token, not closely monitoring, tracking, and reporting on the money that the U.S. spends in territories rife with corruption and characterized by self-dealing and non-transparency would be irresponsibly negligent, and there is a plethora of reasons why the U.S. should not directly support the PA beyond just the prisoner and martyr payments that Taylor Force is meant to address. Like it or not, UNRWA is the only organization currently operating with the resources, infrastructure, and knowledge to be able to provide healthcare and education to Palestinian refugees–particularly so in Gaza, where the alternative would be Hamas–and also like it or not, has deep and abiding problems with transparency and most especially with neutrality. That the U.S. is now for the first time explicitly extracting commitments from UNRWA on accountability, transparency, and neutrality that will be made public is a genuine accomplishment and it is important that the State Department did not move ahead with a funding resumption without those commitments, but it is not going to make all problems disappear in an organization with thousands of employees operating across five territories with different jurisdictions. There are no easy answers here and also no obvious choices. Aid to the Palestinians is not a black and white, all or nothing proposition, yet the policy conversation on the aid question has become as polarizing as any other aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. approach.
Not all Palestinians are Hamas, and not all Palestinians are the PA. The fact that Palestinian leaders engage in terrorism, violence, and corrupt anti-democratic behavior is precisely why the Palestinian people are even more dependent on economic and humanitarian assistance. There are not many democratic and well-run places in the world where this type of assistance is routinely required, and that’s sort of the point. We are not punishing Palestinian corruption or sending a message to the PA leadership by declining to alleviate humanitarian crises in the West Bank and Gaza. We are also doing Israel no favors by not stepping in to help where we can, and this is even before pointing out the absurdity of the fact that we are debating whether to fund medical treatment and basic electricity for ordinary Palestinians while the Israeli government transfers hundreds of millions of dollars each month to the PA directly. It does so because it is in its interests to do so, despite all of the legitimate questions and concerns that abound, and many of those interests are ones that we share, even as we have our own independent interests with regard to the Palestinians as well.
The security assistance to the PA is even more of a direct tangible interest. Israel is a critical ally of the U.S., and its safety depends on stability in the West Bank and ongoing security coordination with the PA. Without the U.S. playing the role of coordinator between the two sides, and without the U.S. training and equipping the PASF, both West Bank stability and IDF coordination with the PA is put at risk. It bears repeating that there is wide bipartisan consensus on this issue among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, that security assistance to the PA was provided by the Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations, and that historically the loudest and most influential voice urging the U.S. to maintain funding to the PASF has been the Israeli government. The idea that maintaining this funding is somehow contrary to either American or Israeli interests is both extreme and unusual.
There is another argument making the rounds that resuming funding to the Palestinians–and again, not to the PA–is an effort to subvert the Abraham Accords, and that because the Trump administration was able to broker normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, reversing any Trump policy on Israel and the Palestinians is a step away from peace. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that Trump tried and failed to get the Palestinians to engage precisely because of policies such as his freeze on assistance, one only need look at the Abraham Accords countries themselves to see the fallacy of this line of reasoning. It is bizarre misdirection to argue that the U.S. providing humanitarian and economic assistance to the West Bank and Gaza will doom normalization efforts when Israel and the UAE both provide that assistance as well, with the most recent example being the 40,000 Sputnik vaccines that the UAE donated to the West Bank and Gaza last month. It makes sense to have a debate on what U.S. policy should be, but so long as it is based on misinformation, half truths, and blatant falsehoods, it will be impossible to actually evaluate whether U.S. policy and the way in which it is shifting makes sense and serves a clear purpose.