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)
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Updated 07 April 2021

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.


Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

Updated 54 min 16 sec ago

Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday

JERUSALEM: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday, the highest ranked member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Israel.
The two-day visit comes as the Biden administration attempts to return to an Iran nuclear deal abandoned by its predecessor — a deal Israel opposes.
Austin is expected to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
The trip will also include a tour of the Nevatim air force base and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and to a Jerusalem memorial to fallen soldiers.
Austin arrives days after representatives of the remaining parties to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal launched talks in Vienna on bringing the United States back into it.
Then president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.
All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.
Israel opposes the US attempt to rejoin the accord.
Speaking last week, Netanyahu said Israel would not be bound by its terms.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” Netanyahu said in a speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran and Israel have both recently attacked each other’s commercial shipping, reports say.
Austin will also visit Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium on his tour, according to the Pentagon.

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Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

Updated 10 April 2021

Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

  • The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi says
  • Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East

Iran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country on Saturday to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported.
The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said. Businesses, schools, theaters and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday.
Iran’s coronavirus cases have surpassed 2 million with a new daily average of over 20,000 infections over the past week, according to the health ministry. It has reported more than 64,000 fatalities.
“Unfortunately, today we have entered a fourth wave,” President Hassan Rouhani said in televised remarks. He blamed the surge foremost on the variant that first emerged in the UK which spread to Iran earlier this year from neighboring Iraq.
Other factors included widespread travel, weddings, and celebrations during the Iranian New Year holidays that began on March 20, he said.
The UK variant is now predominant in the country, and 257 cities and towns are in red alert, Raisi said.
Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East. In February, it closed several crossing points with Iraq in an effort to stem the spread of the UK variant.
The country’s vaccination drive has also been slow going. Tehran says it has received more than 400,000 of 2 million Sputnik V vaccines on order from Russia, and that it is awaiting delivery of 4.2 million AstraZeneca shots.
It has also received 250,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and part of an order of 500,000 doses of India’s COVAXIN.
With a population of 83 million, Iran had hoped to secure over 2 million vaccines by March 20 to vaccinate mainly health care workers. It is developing at least four local vaccine candidates, one in cooperation with Cuba, which are expected to reach production in a few months.


Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

Updated 10 April 2021

Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant

TEHRAN: Iran announced Saturday it has started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in a breach of its undertakings under a troubled 2015 nuclear deal, days after talks on rescuing it got underway.

President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

The television aired no images of the cascades but broadcast a link with engineers at the plant who said they had introduced uranium hexafluoride gas to the cascades after receiving the order from Rouhani.

Iran’s latest move to step up uranium enrichment follows an opening round of talks Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal on bringing the United States back into the deal.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.

The IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges allow uranium to be enriched more quickly and in greater amounts than the Iran’s first-generation devices, which are the only ones that the 2015 deal allows it to use.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

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Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

Updated 10 April 2021

Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

DJIBOUTI: Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as president of Djibouti with more than 98 percent of the vote, according to provisional results announced by Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick Friday night.
“President Ismail Omar Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes, which is 98.58 percent,” he told public broadcaster RTD, adding that confirmed results would be released soon by the Constitutional Council.


US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

Updated 10 April 2021

US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

WASHINGTON: The United States offered “very serious” ideas to Iran on how to revive a nuclear deal during talks in Vienna but is waiting for Iran to show the same “seriousness,” a US official said Friday.
“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.
But the official said the United States was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.
“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to... take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.
President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, which include a sweeping unilateral ban on its oil exports, before it falls back in line with obligations it suspended.
The US official indicated that the major stumbling block in the initial talks was not the order of compliance but rather which sanctions were under discussion as Iran is demanding an end to all US restrictions.
Iran’s position is “not consistent with the deal itself because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections,” the official said.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate sanctions,” he said, using the acronym for the accord’s official name.
Iran refused to meet directly with US negotiator Rob Malley during the talks led by the European Union, whose envoys shuttled between the two sides in different hotels. Talks are set to resume in the same format next week.