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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians

Jim Zanotti
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed over $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid. Successive Administrations have requested aid for the Palestinians to support at least three major U.S. policy priorities of interest to Congress:

  • Preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other militant organizations. 
  • Fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank that inclines Palestinians toward peaceful coexistence with Israel and a “two-state solution”. 
  • Meeting humanitarian needs. 

Since June 2007, these U.S. policy priorities have crystallized around the factional and geographical split between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Informal congressional holds delayed disbursement of various portions of FY2011 aid to the Palestinians, until the Obama Administration obligated this assistance despite a reportedly remaining hold. Holds reportedly remain attached to already-appropriated FY2012 U.S. aid. The holds appear to be largely a response to and anticipation of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) initiatives in the United Nations and other international forums aimed at increasing international recognition of Palestinian statehood outside of negotiations with Israel. The holds occur at a time of ongoing structural budgetary crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA)— exacerbated by a number of factors—that could threaten stability, especially in the West Bank. Additionally, some Members of Congress remain concerned about a possible “consensus” PA government whose composition would require Hamas approval. New conditions on aid from FY2012 relating both to potential U.N.-related initiatives and a potential consensus PA government have carried over into FY2013. Some Members of Congress have proposed additional conditions in anticipation of possible future steps by the PLO to make legal action possible—including at the International Criminal Court (ICC)—against perceived Israeli violations of various international laws and norms.

From FY2008 to the present, annual regular-year U.S. bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $500 million, including annual averages of approximately $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in non-lethal security assistance for the PA in the West Bank. Additionally, the United States is the largest single-state donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, whether UNRWA’s role productively addresses the refugee issue in the context of efforts to mitigate or resolve the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a polarizing question.

Because of congressional concerns that, among other things, funds might be diverted to Palestinian terrorist groups, U.S. aid is subject to a host of vetting and oversight requirements and legislative restrictions. U.S. assistance to the Palestinians is given alongside assistance from other international donors, and U.S. policymakers routinely call for greater or more timely assistance from Arab governments in line with pledges those governments make. Even if the immediate objectives of U.S. assistance programs for the Palestinians are met, lack of progress toward a politically legitimate and peaceful two-state solution could undermine the utility of U.S. aid in helping the Palestinians become more cohesive, stable, and self-reliant over the long term.

Date of Report: January 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: RS22967
Price: $29.95

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