GOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians

GOP lawmakers block Biden assistance to Palestinians

16:08 - Top Republicans with oversight on foreign affairs are blocking the Biden administration from sending specific aid to the Palestinians, two congressional sources confirmed to The Hill on Friday.

The move represents an effort to carry on the hard-line policy of the former Trump administration which eliminated all funding for Palestinians.

Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the ranking members of their respective committees on foreign affairs, issued an "info hold" on $75 million in economic and development assistance, according to one of the congressional sources.

The funding is part of an estimated $235 million in total assistance to the Palestinians that was announced earlier this week by the Biden administration.

The move by Risch and McCaul is expected to delay delivery of the money, but a congressional aide didn’t expect it to have a lasting impact.

The decision was first reported by The Jerusalem Post.

The move was criticized by the left-leaning, progressive pro-Israel group J Street, which called it “punitive and performatively anti-Palestinian.”

“Congressional Republicans are doubling down on the cruel policies of the Trump administration by putting a hold on the resumption of critical aid to the Palestinian people. The Biden administration should disburse this aid as instructed by law — as past administrations have done after due consultation with lawmakers and when faced with similar bad-faith abuse of that process,” J Street’s President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement.

The offices of Risch and McCaul did not provide comment on the hold, but the lawmakers issued a statement Wednesday in response criticizing the Biden administration for restarting funds that were severed under the previous administration.

“Resuming assistance to the West Bank and Gaza without concessions from the Palestinian Authority (PA) undermines U.S. interests,” the lawmakers said in the statement.

They criticized the administration for not doing more to ensure that the Palestinian Authority is no longer paying salaries to families of Palestinians convicted or accused of terrorism. They refer to that program as “pay to slay.”

“The Biden Administration should use all available leverage to secure behavior changes from the PA, including ending terror payments. We will continue to scrutinize every proposed program 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 Taylor Force Act, which became law in 2018, ended U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority until it eliminates the Palestinian Martyrs Fund. It was named in honor of American citizen and military veteran Taylor Force, who was killed in a stabbing attack by a Palestinian in Tel Aviv in 2016, while 10 others were wounded.

Then-President Trump signed the Taylor Force Act into law in March 2018. In August of that year, his administration ended all assistance benefiting Palestinians and assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary organization for Palestinian refugees.

Biden promised as a candidate to restart assistance to the Palestinians, including to UNRWA.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Wednesday that the administration would provide $150 million for UNRWA, $75 million in economic assistance and $10 million in people-to-people projects through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that aid would be directed to “experienced and trusted independent partners on the ground” and “not through government or de facto government authorities.”

“All of this aid is absolutely consistent with relevant U.S. law,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), joined by 17 GOP colleagues, also opposed the resumption of assistance, saying U.S. funds should not be used in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

In their opposition, they pointed to a report by the Government Accountability Office published last month that said USAID was not fully compliant with antiterrorism requirements.

The agency was criticized for not ensuring that organizations didn’t provide funds to unvetted groups.

“We call on you to halt these expenditures until the State Department accounts for statutory restrictions and remedies known deficiencies in the distribution of such assistance, which have for years promoted and facilitated terrorism against Americans and Israelis," the senators wrote in a letter to Blinken on Thursday.

Price, of the State Department, said the agency took the findings of the GAO report “very seriously” and that USAID is taking steps to strengthen its existing antiterrorism procedures.

Price also pointed out that the report did not say funds were distributed to parties that failed vetting for terrorism activities.

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