The United States said on Thursday it is giving $15m to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, a sharp reversal from the Trump administration which cut off almost all aid to the Palestinians.
US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield made the announcement at the United Nations Security Council’s monthly Middle East meeting, saying the money from the US Agency for International Development will support Catholic Relief Services’ “COVID-19 response efforts in healthcare facilities and for vulnerable families in the West Bank and Gaza”.
In addition, she said, the funds will support emergency food aid to communities in need as a result of the pandemic.
“This urgent, necessary aid is one piece of our renewed commitment to the Palestinian people,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “The aid will help Palestinians in dire need, which will bring more stability and security to both Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
Under former US President Donald Trump, the US provided unprecedented support to Israel, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, breaking relations and slashing financial assistance for the Palestinians.
The Trump administration also reversed course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians. It did restore about $1m in aid during the pandemic last year.
Soon after US President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20, his administration announced that it was restoring relations with the Palestinians and renewing aid to Palestinian refugees, a reversal of Trump’s cutoff and a key element of its new support for a two-state solution.
Thomas-Greenfield said the $15m in aid is “consistent with our interests and our values, and it aligns with our efforts to stamp our the pandemic and food insecurity worldwide”.
Tor Wennesland, the UN Middle East envoy, told the Security Council that “COVID-19 continues to have a devastating effect on Palestinians”.
“In addition to the brutal impact on public health, the recurrent lockdowns, school closures, and reduction of commercial activity have severely undermined living conditions,” he said.
Last Sunday, the Palestinian health ministry began administering the first of 61,400 doses of coronavirus vaccines it received from the UN World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative to provide vaccines to developing countries.
It was a boost to the occupied West Bank where the Palestinian Authority had only secured 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and 2,000 shots from Israel for the roughly three million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank.
The Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took control of the area in 2007, had received more than 80,000 vaccines, mostly Russian, from the United Arab Emirates.
UN officials and human rights groups have said Israel is an occupying power with a responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinian population. Israel says that under interim peace accords, it has no such responsibility. After pressure from its own health officials, Israel inoculated more than 100,000 Palestinian labourers in the occupied West Bank who have permits to work inside Israel and the settlements.
Wennesland said the UN and its partners will continue to support Palestinian vaccination efforts, expressed appreciation for Israel’s essential role in deliveries, and urged support for the Palestinian COVID-19 response.
The US announcement on Thursday followed a virtual meeting on Tuesday of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators – the US, UN, Russia and the European Union – to discuss relaunching their long-stalled effort to get Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution to their decades-old conflict.
A brief statement from the four mediators, known as the Quartet, said envoys discussed returning “to meaningful negotiations that will lead to a two-state solution, including tangible steps to advance freedom, security and prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis, which is important in its own right”.
There have been no substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians since 2014, and the two sides are fiercely divided over the core issues of the conflict.
Thomas-Greenfield made no mention of a Quartet meeting but reiterated Biden’s support for a two-state solution and said “the United States looks forward to continuing its work with Israel, the Palestinians and the international community to achieve a long-sought peace in the Middle East”.