Palestinian refugees welcome U.S. decision to restart aid

FILE PHOTO: A worker pushes a cart as people wait to receive food supplies at an aid distribution center run by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at Beach refugee camp in Gaza City April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Palestinian refugees on Thursday welcomed the U.S. announcement that it will renew humanitarian aid, marking a break with the Trump era.

President Joe Biden's administration said on Wednesday that it will provide $235 million to the Palestinians and restart funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which assists 5.7 million registered Palestinian refugees.

It was the clearest sign yet of Biden's apparent intent to repair ties with the Palestinians, who boycotted the Trump White House for most of his tenure, accusing him of pro-Israel bias.

"We are happy," said Ahmed Odeh in Bethlehem's Deheisheh refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. "The former American administration tried to stop these funds to the Palestinian people."

"Any funding for the refugee camps and the refugees is out of good will and is good for us ... people are not working or making money, especially during the pandemic," said Subhi Allian, 71, outside an UNRWA clinic in Far'a refugee camp near Tubas.

Most UNRWA-registered refugees are descendants of 700,000 Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or fled fighting in the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation.

Many want the right to return to their families’ former lands in pre-1948 Palestine, lands which now lie in Israel. Israel rejects any such right as a demographic threat to its Jewish majority.

In a Twitter video late on Wednesday, Gilad Erdan, Israel's Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, voiced "disappointment and objection" about the renewal of funding to the refugee agency without reforming it.

"UNRWA schools regularly use materials that incite against Israel and the twisted definition used by the agency to determine who is a refugee only perpetuates the conflict," he said. "It should not exist in its current form.”

The Biden plan will provide $150 million to UNRWA and agency officials hope it will lead to more donations from the United States and others.

However, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told Reuters that the agency would "still struggle" amid reduced donations from elsewhere and cuts to their overseas development budgets by Australia and Britain.

Two priorities were COVID-19 and Lebanon, where last week he found residents of the country's largest Palestinian refugee camp to be more desperate than he had ever known them.

“When I was in Ein al-Hilweh people were saying ... that either 'we die from COVID or we die from hunger' or the last choice would be to try to cross the sea to go to Cyprus," he told Reuters.

"Basically, they say the situation today is between three different types of death for the people. That’s how desperate and stressful the situation is."

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Mohammed Abu Ganeyeh in Bethlehem and Raneen Sawafta in Tubas; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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