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Ted Cruz, other Republicans to challenge Biden administration's plans for Palestinian refugee aid

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Republican Senator Ted Cruz quickly prepared to mobilize other lawmakers in his party against U.S. aid to Palestine on Wednesday, following a State Department announcement confirming its plans to resume a humanitarian assistance program.

The State Department is coordinating the program with Congress, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The U.N. agency primarily supports relief and development efforts for Palestinian refugees. Donald Trump eliminated federal funding for the UNRWA early in his presidency.

Congressional Republicans such as Cruz have pushed back against the effort to resume aid under President Joe Biden's administration. The Texas senator challenged the State Department's decision and urged officials to "halt these expenditures" in a drafted letter that he anticipated roughly a dozen of his Republican colleagues will sign, according to the Associated Press.

"We call on you to halt these expenditures until the State Department accounts for statutory restrictions and remedies [to] known deficiencies in the distribution of such assistance, which have for years promoted and facilitated terrorism against Americans and Israelis," wrote Cruz in the letter, addressed to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

For additional reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

The State Department said it would provide a total of $235 million to projects in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to the UNRWA, through the assistance program. The administration had previously announced $15 million for the Palestinians to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The resumption in assistance has met opposition in Congress from pro-Israel lawmakers, who say the money may violate U.S. law.

The resumption of assistance was immediately welcomed by the United Nations, UNRWA itself and the Palestinians, while Israel expressed deep concern.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz speaks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 23. Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images

The Associated Press has previously reported that the administration notified Congress of its intent to ramp up aid to the Palestinians, but until Wednesday it had not publicly acknowledged any assistance other than that for COVID-19. The new assistance comes as the administration cements a new Mideast policy that in many ways is directly opposite of the one pursued by Trump.

"The United States is pleased to announce that, working with Congress, we plan to restart U.S. economic, development, and humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people," Blinken said in a statement. He said the money includes $75 million in economic and development assistance in the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peacebuilding programs and $150 million for UNRWA.

Blinken sought to forestall congressional criticism by saying that "all assistance will be provided consistent with U.S. law," but Republican members of Congress are already gearing up to fight the aid. The announcement came on the same day that Biden reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Blinken maintained that U.S. support to the Palestinians is key to advancing American interests in the region.

"U.S. foreign assistance for the Palestinian people serves important U.S. interests and values," he said. "It provides critical relief to those in great need, fosters economic development, and supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability. It also aligns with the values and interests of our allies and partners."

The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that it "renewed its commitment to the two-state solution based on the foundations of international legitimacy, and its willingness to respond to any international efforts to reach this goal."

The leadership of the cash-strapped U.N. agency and the United Nations hailed the announcement. "We hope that others will now follow suit. There were a number of countries that had greatly reduced or halted contributions to UNRWA. We hope that the American decision will lead others to rejoin UNRWA as UNRWA donors," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Israel, meanwhile, frowned, repeating longstanding allegations that UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and is in need of major reform before support can be restored to it.

"Israel's position is that the organization in its current form perpetuates the conflict and does not contribute to its resolution," the Israeli foreign ministry said. "The renewal of aid to UNRWA should be accompanied by substantial and necessary changes in the nature, goals and conduct of the organization."

The Biden administration has made no secret of its belief that Trump's approach to the Mideast, which alienated the Palestinians, was flawed and made prospects for peace less likely. The new assistance appears aimed at encouraging the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel, though there is no indication it will have that effect and Israel has yet to weigh in publicly.

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