Many believed that the EU had reacted quickly after the bloodbath of the Islamist Hamas in Israel: on the night of the terror, a huge Israeli flag shone on the facade of the EU Commission building. It seemed as if the European Union was standing united “on Israel’s side,” as the head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, noted. The member states had unanimously condemned Hamas’ attacks and granted the attacked country the right to defend itself. But just one day later, the unity turned into an open dispute and led to a communication chaos.
In 2022, aid for the Palestinian territories amounted to almost 300 million euros, according to EU information. The money is used, among other things, to finance the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, as well as schools, hospitals and infrastructure, especially in the West Bank.
In the chaos in Brussels it quickly became clear that one commissioner announced this, the other commissioner that, some countries spoke up, and so did the foreign affairs representative, but with the opposite of what the previous commissioner said. And when everyone thinks that the chaos is actually embarrassing enough, the President of the Council gives his own view of things. The play had many acts, here is a brief summary:
The Hungarian EU Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, who is responsible for the aid funds, opened the dispute. The EU, he announced, would immediately stop all payments to the Palestinians and review all projects. The content of this decision was supported by Commission President von der Leyen. But Várhelyi published it on his own initiative and too early – before the special meeting of EU foreign ministers planned for last Tuesday, which, among other things, was supposed to discuss exactly this question. Várhelyi immediately met with opposition: On the one hand, his Slovenian colleague Janez Lenarčič, who is responsible for emergency aid in the EU Commission, protested. Money for humanitarian purposes should not be withheld, he said angrily.
A number of EU countries were also outraged by the Commission’s go-it-alone approach: France, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain doubted whether it made sense to withdraw support from the Palestinian civilian population in the Israeli-occupied areas in order to punish Hamas, which only rules in Gaza. In addition, it would be within the competence of the 27 EU governments to decide on a possible payment stop. In a press release from the Commission there was no longer any mention of suspending payments. Instead, what is happening with the EU money in the Palestinian territories should first be examined in detail, it was said. And: Since there are currently no transfers pending, none need to be suspended. However, this line was counteracted a short time later by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. He announced that the EU Commission’s audit would not affect the “payments due”.
And it is not the first conflict within the EU institutions: There had already been a dispute in the Commission over payments to the Palestinians, when Várhelyi wanted to link transfers to the autonomous authority in 2021 with the fact that it prevented hate speech in Palestinian school textbooks. There was a bitter struggle over this, and Foreign Affairs Representative Borrell was against it. The money was only released in June 2022, before von der Leyen’s trip to Ramallah.
The discussion about development aid has also quickly gained momentum in Germany. There were calls not only from the opposition to at least freeze and review aid to the Palestinians, if not stop it altogether. At first there was hardly any differentiation as to exactly what kind of help this should be about.
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin is only responsible for part of the money that goes to the Palestinians. The Ministry of Development is responsible for a much larger part. There, the opinion is that “we have already paid strict attention to ensuring that our support for the people in the Palestinian territories serves peace and not the terrorists”. But the attacks are a turning point, so the entire “commitment to the Palestinian territories will be put to the test.” The Foreign Office emphasized that no money was going to Hamas: “Germany does not finance terror.”
German commitments for development aid currently amount to 250 million euros. It’s about water supply projects, the health system and job creation. There is no direct financing for the Palestinian Authority. In May alone, a total of 125 million euros were pledged for bilateral projects. “Cooperation with Palestine is probably the best-vetted portfolio of the entire BMZ,” said a spokeswoman for the German Development Ministry. The payments are now suspended while they are being examined again – also in coordination with Israeli authorities.
The German Foreign Ministry is providing around 79 million euros this year to help people in the Palestinian territories. A good 72 million of this is humanitarian aid. They go, among others, to the United Nations World Food Program for food supplies in Gaza and the West Bank (ten million), the International Red Cross for health care (seven million) and UNICEF for “basic supplies” for Palestinian children and families (1 .7 million). The partners are examined, as is every individual project application, it is said in Berlin. There are later reports of what happened to it. Checks are also carried out on site to ensure that the money is being spent as instructed. UNRWA again receives by far the largest part of the aid from the Foreign Office – 42 million euros for food aid in Gaza and another two million for, among other things, further training in employment and the testing of teaching materials.
The United Nations relief agency for Palestine refugees in the Middle East has been repeatedly criticized in the past. In Berlin it is currently said that UNRWA is one of the organizations that are under the most scrutiny. The UN organization, which is primarily active in the areas of education, medical care and humanitarian aid, is accused of not being a neutral humanitarian actor and of sometimes working with people close to Hamas. There have also been incidents in the past in which Palestinian teachers at internationally funded schools spread anti-Semitic content.
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