A key United States senator is blocking $50m in economic assistance to the Palestinians, undercutting promises of help by Secretary of State Antony Blinken after Israel’s assault on Gaza in May and delaying the much-needed reconstruction of water resources and roads.
Last month, Republican Senator James Risch placed a hold on the funding, already approved by the US Congress, using procedures under a 2018 US law and claiming he wants to ensure the funds would not go to the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.
Advocates for US aid to the Palestinians say Risch’s hold on the funds is politically motivated and will eventually have to be lifted. A large group of Democrats in the US House, led by Representative Jamie Raskin, who is Jewish, has demanded Risch release the aid.
A spokeswoman for Risch confirmed to Al Jazeera on Monday the hold remains in place despite the appeals to lift it.
“I just don’t see any justification for withholding the release of funds, other than the continued dehumanisation, ridicule and collective punishment of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.
“It’s a part of the consistent collective punishment of the Palestinian people, particularly the people of Gaza,” Abuznaid told Al Jazeera.
After 11 days of bombardment by Israel in May, Palestinian residents in the besieged enclave of Gaza face massive rebuilding challenges amid a ceasefire and an uncertain future. Israel destroyed hundreds of buildings, leading to the displacement of some 100,000 civilians. The bombing killed 256 Palestinians, including 66 children.
The dispute in Congress over distributing aid to Gaza and the occupied West Bank shows how a pro-Israel law put in place during the previous Trump administration may hamper the new Biden team’s efforts to moderate the conflict.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on May 25 and pledged Washington would provide $75m in longer-term development and economic aid to Palestinians.
Risch and several other Republicans immediately moved to block most of those funds, accusing the PA of using $150m directed by Abbas to compensate families of Palestinians who killed Israelis in recent years.
“Sadly, just after the Biden administration announced additional assistance to the West Bank and Gaza, PA President Abbas issued a $42,000 martyr’s payment to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist who stabbed two Israelis to death in 2015. This is outrageous,” Risch wrote in a June 15 letter explaining his hold.
“This abhorrent practice concerns me deeply and should be repugnant to all members of Congress,” Risch wrote.
Palestinians view the “martyrs” fund as necessary anti-poverty assistance for the families of Palestinians imprisoned or killed by Israel each year.
In the case cited by Risch, the funds were awarded in Jordanian Dinars to the family of a 19-year-old man who was shot dead by Israeli forces after he had stabbed two Israelis to death in 2015.
Israeli forces later demolished the man’s family home in Ramallah, part of a controversial policy of retribution aimed at deterring Palestinian attacks. The payment to the family by the PA was to help them with housing costs, according to reports.
In 2018, the US Congress passed a new law, called the “Taylor Force Act”, named after an American graduate student killed by a Palestinian while on an exchange trip in Israel. The law allows legislators to cut off aid to Palestinians if it connects to the PA’s ability to make “martyr” payments.
Palestinian advocates in the US say that, while Congress technically has authority to review the $50m that is being blocked, the money is destined for projects and developments handled by non-governmental organisations, not the PA.
“Setting aside the problems with the Taylor Force Act, the humanitarian aid that Senator Risch is holding up, does not trigger and is not impacted by the Taylor Force Act,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American human rights lawyer in Detroit.
“It’s shameful, but not surprising, that the senator is so callously withholding this desperately needed aid,” Arraf told Al Jazeera.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump cut off $200m in US aid designated for the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees. The Biden administration announced in April it was restoring $150m for the UN agency. Those funds are not impeded by the Taylor Force Act.
Even with that aid, the scope of the needs in the Palestinian territories is enormous. “Gaza is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe,” Representative Raskin wrote in his letter signed by 145 Democrats urging Risch not to delay US assistance.
“Buildings lie in rubble. Access to clean water and electricity is sporadic or nonexistent. Food insecurity is spreading. COVID-19 is running rampant and thousands of people have been displaced and rendered homeless. The magnitude of the crisis is staggering.”
After the Israeli bombing in May, “we need to reconstruct civilian housing that has been damaged, people have been made homeless”, said Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Washington office of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which has issued an emergency appeal for donations.
“We need to provide families with rental subsidies and support, so their homes can be rebuilt,” Campbell told Al Jazeera.
At the same time, Palestinians in Gaza who have been targeted by Israeli bombs are suffering a “scary decline” in psychological health, Campbell said.
“Many, many, many people in Gaza, including children, have witnessed family members, friends and neighbours killed.”