USAID chief Samantha Power defends US funding for Palestinians

USAID chief Samantha Power (Steven Senne - AP)

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  July 14, 2021

Economic despair helps create ‘environment for radicalization’, which is not in anyone’s interest, says Power.

Samantha Power, chief of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), on Wednesday defended Washington’s economic assistance to Palestinian agencies, arguing that despair in the occupied Palestinian territories did not benefit anyone.

At a Senate hearing discussing the agency’s budget proposal, Power faced several questions from Republicans about President Joe Biden’s push to restore Palestinian funding, which had been slashed by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Power stood by the aid program and assured lawmakers that the aid would not benefit Hamas, and was accompanied by a stringent vetting process that ensured it did not violate US legal restrictions. 

The United States has several laws on the books, including the Taylor Force Act, which prohibit funding going to the Palestinian Authority.

“Part of what we need to do is unlock some of the funding that is going to be very important for the reconstruction effort and for economic development,” Power said. 

“With our Israeli interlocutors, there seems to be broad support for that. There’s a recognition that economic deprivation and despair helps create a receptive environment for radicalization, and that’s not something in anybody’s security or economic interest to see happen.”

Blocked funds

The US administration has pledged $360m in assistance to Palestinians this year, of which more than $100m was announced after the end of the Israeli offensive on Gaza in May.

Washington provides $3.8bn in military aid to Israel annually. 

Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned Power that “payments assistance to the Palestinians are going to be very closely scrutinized by some of us here”.

Risch is single-handedly blocking $75m in aid to Palestinians from the last fiscal year, which would become unusable by the end of September with the start of the new budget cycle.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen urged Power to press to help release the funds. 

“I just think it would be irresponsible to allow those funds to lapse, and I hope the administration will use all its authorities when it comes to that request that you’ve made,” Van Hollen said.

Power said aid to Palestinians was the most vetted assistance program at USAID, stressing the importance of the $75m that Risch has refused to release.

“We have tried to ensure that we can move the money that we think is so critical to meet basic needs in terms of food vouchers, livelihoods, youth engagement – I mean again where the potential for radicalization is there – and the East Jerusalem hospital network,” she said.

“We’re very eager. We feel that we have the vetting mechanisms in place to offer the assurances.”

Senator Chris Murphy, a progressive Democrat, raised concerns about Israeli restrictions being imposed on the delivery of the aid into Gaza.

“According to the UN, the main border crossing that we use to get humanitarian goods into Gaza is operating, only at about 50 percent capacity right now due to Israeli delays and restrictions,” the senator said. 

He said the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) had not been allowed to bring syringes and insulin into the Palestinian enclave to which Israel has laid siege for more than a decade.

Power acknowledged that Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which monitors aid to Palestinians, delays the delivery of assistance, and she emphasized that funding for Palestinians is thoroughly examined to remain within the confines of US law.

“It’s really important to remember in addition to all of our vetting… we have a third layer of vetting for anything that goes into Gaza for obvious reasons, but also COGAT, the Israeli system by which supplies go through is there as well as a check on what goes in,” she said. 

“And you’re right, that can produce delays… in terms of people not getting the resources that they need; that is not in anybody’s interest. But it also should offer some assurance for those who are concerned about assistance not reaching its intended destination.”

She did not address Murphy’s query about exploring other avenues for delivering the aid.

Increased budget

Palestinian rights advocates have long argued that aid to Palestinians is not a substitute for political rights and self-determination. 

The Biden administration has so far refused to denounce Israeli policies against Palestinians, including efforts to forcibly remove Palestinian families from Jerusalem.

“The Biden administration is pursuing the same strategy that the Obama administration pursued, which is to provide Israel with the weapons that it uses to demolish Palestinians’ homes and Palestinian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, only to have US aid come in and rebuild what Israel destroys, only to go on to the next cycle of Israel’s destruction and US rebuilding,” Josh Ruebner, an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University, told Middle East Eye in May after additional US aid was announced.

USAID is requesting a 15 percent budget increase this year to reverse Trump’s cuts to foreign aid and to address the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis.

Senator Rand Paul, a staunch conservative, condemned the budget request, arguing that the US should address its own financial issues, including mounting debt, before sending aid to foreign countries. 

Power shot back: “If the pandemic has not taught us how connected the health and safety of Americans is to people who live around the world, I do not know what will.

“We are connected. And if we do not invest in global health systems internationally, it is going to be the Americans that pay the price.”

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics