US Presidents don’t arrive empty-handed. They are often bearing gifts, and President Joe Biden is no exception.
Biden almost waxed poetic when talking to his Israeli and Palestinian hosts last week about the future the United States wanted to build with them.
“The best way to feed the flame of hope is to demonstrate that things can be better,” Biden told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while visiting Bethlehem.
"The best way to feed the flame of hope is to demonstrate that things can be better."US President Joe Biden
Although he spoke of a future of peace, he didn’t take any steps during his visit to advance an end to the conflict. Instead, he focused on a series of small changes that would affect the daily lives of Palestinians. Some were repackaged promises, while others were new gestures.
Below is a list of 10 pledges and steps the US took during Biden’s visit, often together with Israel, designed to impact Palestinians.
1. 24-hour opening of the Allenby crossing
The most far-reaching gesture is the shift to a 24-hour oepration by the end of September of the West Bank’s Allenby Bridge Crossing that Palestinians use to travel to the outside world. The limited hours of the Jordan Valley terminal cause delays, prolong travel time and add extra expenses.
At present, the crossing into neighboring Jordan is open 14 hours a day from Sunday through Thursday and six-and-a-half hours on Friday and Saturday. The agreement for the 24-hour opening was mediated by Morocco and has already been announced by Israel.
2. Salem crossing reopened for vehicles
During Biden’s visit, the IDF reopened the Salem crossing near Jenin between Israel and the northern West Bank to vehicular traffic.
The office of the Coordinator of Government Activities (COGAT) in the Territories announced the move just prior to Biden’s arrival. The small crossing has been open for pedestrian traffic for Palestinians needing to access the military court and land registry office there, according to the left-wing group B’Tselem.
Opening the crossing for vehicular traffic is designed to help Arab-Israelis travel to the northern West Bank for financial reasons, thereby giving a boost to the economy there.
3. Revival of the Joint Economic Committee
Israel, according to the White House, agreed to allow for the revival of the Joint Economic Committee, designated in 1994 to uphold the implementation of the Paris Protocols that govern the economic relationship between Israel and the PA. It is a particularly important step because the protocols need to be amended to meet the economic reality of 2022, although the committee has not met since 2009,
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej has pushed for the committee’s revival since he entered office last year, but had lacked support from former prime minister Naftali Bennett. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has agreed to push forward with the committee which is made up of representatives from Israel and the PA.
4. 4G network by the end of 2023
Palestinians have been unable to fully participate in the global digital economy because they lack the proper infrastructure.
Israel promised the US to allow the Palestinians to upgrade that infrastructure to a 4G network by the end of 2023. West Bank Palestinians are currently using a 3G network, and in Gaza they are still on 2G. This project has been under discussion for a number of years. Israel has yet to announce its approval of this project, for which it has security objections.
5. Palestinian development in Area C
Six zoning plans to advance Palestinian development in Area C of the West Bank that is under IDF military and civilian rule, were announced by COGAT just prior to Biden’s arrival. The United States has long pushed Israel to allow for Palestinian development in Area C, which is under IDF civilian and military control. Israeli approvals of zoning plans and building permits have been few and far between.
Past Israeli pledges on this issue have not all come to fruition. Those on the Israeli Right who believe that all of Area C should be part of Israel’s final borders have argued that such plans are tantamount to ceding land to the Palestinian Authority.
Two of the plans – for Hizma and Harmala – are slated for approval. The other four plans for Fukeikis, Hares, Kisan and Battir are expected to be deposited. All the plans are adjacent to Area B of the West Bank, which is under PA control.
6. Jewish building continues in Jerusalem
There were no public statements during the president’s visit against either Jewish building in east Jerusalem or West Bank settlement construction. The Biden administration, however, has repeatedly stated its disapproval of such projects and has asked Israel to halt plans for them.
To avoid any friction, Israel briefly delayed but did not suspend building plans for Jewish projects in east Jerusalem and settler homes in the West Bank. The Interior Ministry’s District Planning Committee for Jerusalem is due to discuss on July 25 two plans for new Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem involving some 2,000 homes.
The Lower Aqueduct plan would allow for 1,446 new housing units close to the Jewish Har Homa neighborhood. The Givat Hashaked plan for 473 Jewish housing units would be located near the Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Safafa.
In the West Bank, the Civil Administration set September 12 as the date to hear objections against 3,412 settler homes in the unbuilt section of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement known E1, which had been initially scheduled for July 18.
7. $200 million for the east Jerusalem hospital network
Biden announced a multi-year pledge of $100m. for the east Jerusalem hospital network that serves Palestinians. He spoke of this both during his visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital and in Bethlehem on Friday.
No specific details were given as to the allocation of the funds on a yearly basis. Biden, however, noted that in the past the US has provided the hospital with $85m. since 2014. The donation appears to be an increase in current funding levels, particularly when taking into account the matching pledges from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for an additional $100m.
Separately, the White House announced $2.1 million for the Peres Peace Center and $3m. for AppleSeeds, which is a program that brings together young Israeli and Palestinian professionals on issues of technology and leadership. Those two small grants are part of the $250m. set aside for joint Israeli-Palestinian projects under under the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA).
The US, according to the White House, also pledged $15m. to help provide food for 210,000 low-income Palestinians, particularly in light of rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine. Funding will be provided through the United Nations World Food Program and two non-governmental organizations.
8. 15% drop in UNRWA funding
The pledge of $201m. for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees sounded magnanimous when Biden announced it during his press conference with Abbas in Bethlehem on Friday. Prior to the Trump administration, the United States had provided the largest donations to UNRWA on an annual basis made by any single country.
The United States donated $364m. to UNRWA in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, but then halted such annual donations in 2018. Biden resumed that funding in 2021, providing UNRWA with $334m., slightly less than had been given in 2017. However, it had not yet renewed that pledge for 2022.
The White House said that Biden’s pledge on Friday would bring the total of US financial assistance to UNRWA to $618m. This effectively means that with Biden’s announcement, the US has only promised to provide UNRWA with $284m. this year, a 15% drop over last year, unless additional money is pledged at a later date.
9. 1,500 work permits for Palestinians in Gaza
Israel approved an additional 1,500 work permits for Palestinians in Gaza so they could hold jobs in Israel. That brings to 15,000 the total number of such employment documents. Almost immediately, however, Israel suspended the 1,500 permits after four rockets were launched at Israel from Gaza on Saturday night. No damage was caused by the projectiles.
10. West Bank residency status for 5,500 Palestinians
Israel agreed to grant residency status to 5,500 Palestinians who moved into the West Bank from Gaza or abroad. The Palestinian Authority needs approval from Israel before it can enter their names in the Population Registry, which records residency status for the West Bank. Israel froze that registry in 2009 and reopened it only last year under former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s government. Total registrations over the last year will now come to 17,000.