US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package

US President Joe Biden’s administration plans to restore about $200 million in aid to Palestinians after being cut off by then-President Donald Trump, sources told Reuters. (Reuters)
US President Joe Biden’s administration plans to restore about $200 million in aid to Palestinians after being cut off by then-President Donald Trump, sources told Reuters. (Reuters)
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Updated 07 April 2021

US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package

US restores Palestinian aid with $235m package
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken reveals package that includes $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the UN relief agency
  • A further $75 million provided for economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration announced on Wednesday it would provide $235 million in US aid to the Palestinians, restarting funding for the United Nations agency supporting refugees and restoring other assistance cut off by then-President Donald Trump.
The package, including humanitarian, economic and development assistance, was detailed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as part of an effort to repair American ties with the Palestinians that all but collapsed during Trump’s tenure.
It marked Democratic President Joe Biden’s most significant move since taking office on Jan. 20 to make good on his promise to roll back some components of his Republican predecessor’s approach that Palestinians denounced as heavily biased in favor of Israel.
The plan calls for $150 million through the United Nations relief agency UNRWA, $75 million in US economic and development assistance and $10 million for peace-building programs, Blinken said in a statement.
Biden’s aides have also signaled that they want to re-establish the goal of a negotiated two-state solution as a priority in US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But they have moved cautiously so far, and any major steps are likely to wait for the dust to clear after Israel’s inconclusive March election, which will be followed by Palestinian elections scheduled in coming months.
The Trump administration blocked nearly all aid after it severed ties with the Palestinian Authority in 2018. The move was widely seen as an attempt to force the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel on terms the Palestinian leadership branded as an effort to deny them a viable state.
The cuts came after Palestinian leaders decided to boycott the Trump administration’s peace efforts over its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, upending decades of American policy.
This included rescinding funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid and relief services to around 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the Middle East.
“The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart US economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people,” Blinken said.
Ahmed Abu Huly, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said he would be holding a Zoom meeting with US State Department official Richard Albright to express appreciation for the “very important support” and said he hoped it would continue.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said: “In respect to UNRWA, Israel’s position is that the organization in its present form perpetuates the conflict rather than helping to resolve it. Therefore, the renewal of assistance to UNRWA must be accompanied by substantial and vital changes to its nature, goals and organizational conduct.”
The United Nations welcomed the restart of UNRWA funding. “There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced to halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin ... as UNRWA donors,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters the new funding was “extremely welcome” but said it was also important to have the United States back as “strategic partners” politically.
Blinken said the United States was also “resuming vital security assistance programs” with the Palestinians but did not elaborate.
However, the administration is likely to hold back for now on resuming direct economic aid to the Palestinian Authority while Biden’s aides consult with Congress on potential legal obstacles, according to one person familiar with the matter. The notice to Congress assured lawmakers that all assistance would be consistent with US law.
The money that will go to UNRWA does not immediately restore contributions to the $365 million level that the United States gave to the agency in 2017.
Most of the refugees assisted by UNRWA are descendants of some 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.
The growing refugee count was cited by the Trump administration in its 2018 defunding, with then-State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticizing UNRWA over what she called an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.”
Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who developed close ties with Trump, has also called for the dismantling of UNRWA.
Soon after Biden took office, his administration began laying the groundwork for restored relations with the Palestinians as well as renewed aid. Biden’s aides are crafting a more detailed plan to reset ties, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters in mid-March.
The administration announced late last month it was giving $15 million to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.


GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen
Updated 20 April 2021

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen

GCC official and Swedish envoy discuss developments in Yemen
  • They discussed the GCC’s efforts to support a political solution to the crisis

RIYADH: Abdulaziz Hamad Al-Owaishek, the assistant secretary general for political affairs and negotiations at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has met with Sweden’s envoy to Yemen Peter Semneby.
During the meeting, they discussed the latest developments in Yemen, and reviewed the GCC’s efforts to support a political solution to the crisis, according to the three references represented by the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanism, the outcomes of the comprehensive national dialogue, and UN Security Council Resolution 2216.
They also discussed the peace initiative that was announced by Saudi Arabia in March to end the war in Yemen, implement a comprehensive cease-fire, and begin consultations between the Yemeni parties to reach a political solution to the Yemeni crisis under the auspices of the UN.
Semneby briefed the GCC official on Sweden’s political and humanitarian efforts in following up with the Yemeni issue, and said he praised cooperation with the bloc in this regard.


Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

 Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing
Updated 19 April 2021

Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

 Russian army says killed 'up to 200 militants' in Syria bombing

MOSCOW: Russia's defence ministry said Monday that it had killed "up to 200 fighters" in Syria during an air strike on a "terrorist" base northeast of Palmyra.
"After confirming data through multiple channels on the location of terrorist facilities, Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft carried out airstrikes," the ministry said in a statement, adding that they "eliminated two hideouts" and "up to 200 militants".


Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
Updated 19 April 2021

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees

Syria’s upcoming presidential election stirs bitterness, disappointment in refugees
  • News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon
  • Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon

BEIRUT: Syrian refugees in Lebanon have expressed bitterness and disappointment ahead of elections that are expected to keep President Bashar Assad in office.

The Syrian Parliament has set May 26 as the date for the poll.

Assad won in 2014 with more than 88 percent of the Syrian vote. He has not officially announced his candidacy to run in next month’s election.

News that Syria’s embassies had opened for voter registration was met with disappointment by refugees in Lebanon, who also expressed their frustration with the international community.

Abu Ahmad Souaiba, speaking on behalf of the Voice of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, said the revolution was launched to “achieve freedom and dignity.”

“Our disappointment today is great because of the failure to implement (UN) Security Council resolutions, which call for power transition not the re-election of Bashar Assad one more time,” he told Arab News.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been distributed in the Bekaa Valley and on the country’s northern borders since arriving in Lebanon, with the majority of those who took part in the revolution against Assad concentrated in the Arsal area.

“There are three segments of Syrians in Lebanon,” said Souaiba. “One segment includes families who have been living in Lebanon since before the revolution and those who are not affiliated with the opposition. The second includes the opposition, and these migrated to Lebanon in 2013 and 2014 because of the barrels of death (barrel bombs). The third includes those who are neither with the opposition nor with the regime, and those (people) came to Lebanon because of the economic crisis and are concerned about obtaining their livelihood and the sustenance of their families.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon decreased to 865,500 by the end of Dec. 2020.

Lebanon called on the UNHCR to suspend new registrations at the beginning of 2015. 

About 55,000 have returned to Syria in recent years as part of repatriation efforts by Lebanese General Security and as part of a reconciliation program sponsored by Hezbollah in some Syrian towns.

Rumors are circulating that Hezbollah has set up committees to fill out census forms with the number of Syrian refugees present in certain areas ahead of taking them to voting stations on polling day.

Talk of a Hezbollah census has coincided with information that the Ministry of Interior is waiting for UNHCR data in order to prepare a mechanism for calculating the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The ministry has been assigned this task in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs, Lebanese General Security and the UNHCR.

Arab News contacted UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abu Khaled, but she refused to comment and only said there was “currently no refugee census.”

Souaiba believed there was no need to recount the refugees because, around six weeks ago, a census was carried out by NGOs under the supervision of Lebanese military intelligence for refugees in camps and settlements, specifically in the Arsal area which is open to the land connecting Lebanese and Syrian territories.

He also said there was news from inside Syria of hunger, even in Damascus, and painted a bleak picture of people’s desperation to escape.

“There is no fuel and no electricity,” he added. “A woman who fled to Lebanon with her children told me that her husband was arrested by Syrian authorities and his fate is still unknown. She is almost dying of starvation with her children. She preferred to flee to Lebanon with her children and borrowed $100 to pay the smuggler. She thought that in Lebanon she would receive some food, and this is better than hunger in Syria.”

A UNHCR study estimated that 89 percent of Syrian refugee families were living below the extreme poverty line in Lebanon in 2020, compared to 55 percent in 2019.


Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces
Updated 19 April 2021

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces

Iran, IAEA start talks on unexplained uranium traces
  • Failure to make progress on explaining the uranium traces could mean world powers would push for a resolution by June

VIENNA: The UN nuclear watchdog and Iran on Monday started talks aimed at obtaining explanations from Tehran on the origin of uranium traces at found at undeclared locations in Iran, an issue which could affect efforts to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
An agreement to hold the talks helped persuade European powers to hold off of seeking a resolution criticizing Iran at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors last month.
That avoided an escalation between Iran and the West that could have hurt efforts to bring Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the 2015 deal, under which Iran agreed to curbs to its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.
Failure to make progress on explaining the uranium traces in the IAEA’s talks with Tehran could mean France, Britain and Germany would push for a resolution with US backing by the next IAEA board meeting in June.
“The IAEA and Iran began today to engage in a focused process aimed at clarifying outstanding safeguards issues,” the IAEA said in a statement, adding that the meeting was at the level of experts.
The Iran nuclear deal effectively drew a line under what the IAEA and US intelligence agencies believe was a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that Iran halted in 2003. Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons.
In the past two years, however, IAEA inspectors have found traces of processed uranium at three sites Iran never declared to the watchdog, suggesting that Tehran had nuclear material connected to old activities that remains unaccounted for.
The IAEA must track that material down to be sure Iran is not diverting any to make nuclear weapons.
The issue has been a complicating factor in the diplomatic effort to resurrect the 2015 deal, which then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 prompting Iran to violate some of its limits. President Joe Biden aims to resurrect the deal, but Washington and Tehran are at odds over how to do that.
A first IAEA-Iran meeting to discuss the uranium traces had been due to take place in Tehran in early April, but that was delayed just as talks to rescue the deal, involving its remaining parties and shuttle diplomacy with the United States, were being arranged in Vienna.
“Today’s meeting took place in Vienna, as participating Iranian experts are also involved in separate meetings on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at another location in the Austrian capital,” the IAEA said, using the deal’s full name.


El-Sisi holds meeting on prosthetics production in Egypt

El-Sisi holds meeting on prosthetics production in Egypt
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2021

El-Sisi holds meeting on prosthetics production in Egypt

El-Sisi holds meeting on prosthetics production in Egypt
  • The president directed that the national capacity for the production of prosthetics should train technical cadres towards scientific, technical, and academic qualifications

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi met with a number of ministers and officials to advance plans to set up an integrated system for the production of prosthetics in Egypt.

The president was briefed on the efforts made to develop the prosthetic factory affiliated to the Rheumatology and Rehabilitation Military Center.

He was given details on the establishment of an industrial complex for prosthetics, devices, and movement aids, with the team taking advice from experts in the field.

The government is planning to acquire a new prosthetics production capability using high-quality raw materials. It is also aiming to develop qualification programs for training in the use of the products.

The president directed that the national capacity for the production of prosthetics should train technical cadres towards scientific, technical, and academic qualifications.

El-Sisi stressed the importance of retaining the manufacturing processes within Egypt to guarantee the provision of first-class prosthetics care to people in need.

The president also directed the preparation of a comprehensive database of the system, which should record medical cadres, technical workers, and requests for prosthetic limbs, with relevant authorities using resources from the Decent Life initiative.