A Palestinian student of the Al Umariya Secondary School for Girls in Qalqilya, built with American aid, praises terrorist Khairy Alqam on Jan. 30. Credit: Facebook
A Palestinian student of the Al Umariya Secondary School for Girls in Qalqilya, built with American aid, praises terrorist Khairy Alqam on Jan. 30. Credit: Facebook
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Terror-supporting Palestinian school built by USAID spotlights worldwide problem for agency

A fundamental shift is needed in which the agency is incentivized to pay more attention to where its money is going, says Middle East Forum Washington project director.

Three days after Khairy Alqam murdered seven people outside a synagogue in Jerusalem, the Al Umariya Secondary School for Girls in Qalqilya held a special ceremony to commemorate him. The school was established with U.S. funds.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided funding for construction of the school in 2008, an agency spokesperson told JNS. Construction was completed in 2009. The last time it provided assistance was in 2016-2017 (principal training and technology to facilitate internet education), and according to USAID the United States no longer funds the institution.

USAID is an independent agency of the U.S. federal government responsible for more than half of all U.S. foreign aid. According to its mission statement, it promotes “democratic values abroad” and advances “a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.” It is currently headed by Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration.

According to IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Maurice Hirsch, director of legal strategies for Palestinian Media Watch, the administration has been funneling “growing amounts of aid through USAID instead of giving direct aid to the Palestinian Authority. Their goal is to give as much money as they can to the Palestinians through this alternative avenue in order to circumvent the Taylor Force Act.”

That law, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2018, prohibits U.S. funding from going to the P.A. as long as it continues to pay stipends through its “Martyr’s Fund” to terrorists and their families. The P.A. has ignored the United States and paid out more than $1 billion to terrorists since 2018 (including more than $32,000 to the family of Taylor Force’s killer), according to Palestinian Media Watch.

Clifford Smith, Washington project director of the Middle East Forum, told JNS that for the most part the problem with USAID is not one of ideology—in this instance, anti-Israel sentiment—but rather reflects a problem with USAID worldwide. “What I’ve seen repeatedly is that USAID pays very little attention to who their partners are. If it’s not an actual, honest-to-God, U.S. designated terrorist entity [on the State Department’s list], they [USAID] just don’t care. They don’t look at these groups’ ideology, or their beliefs, or their practices.”

A recent example, he said, is a grant USAID made to the Michigan-based Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD). “Anybody who looks at this group for two seconds realizes it’s a Jamaat-e-Islami charity,” Smith said, referring to the violent Islamist extremist network in South Asia. “They don’t even try to hide it.”

Smith noted that Congress had complained about HHRD as a potential terror charity several years ago. USAID, which hadn’t given money to HHRD until then, gave it a grant anyway. Behind the scenes, USAID is defending itself by saying HHRD isn’t on the designated terror list. The problem is that’s a low bar to set as only about 10% of terror-financing organizations are designated as such, ironically, because a very high bar is set to get on the terror list, said Smith.

In 2019, Smith examined another USAID case, in which it hyped its $250,000 grant to Lebanon-based Jammal Trust Bank. The next year, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the bank for supporting Hezbollah’s financial activities. “It’s emblematic of the problem. The bank wasn’t terror-designated at the time, and because USAID wanted to help people in Lebanon, they didn’t ask questions of the right people. They just kind of ran with it.”

“They are not anti-terror finance people at USAID. They aren’t geopolitical strategists. They aren’t even diplomats really,” said Smith. “In other words, their entire goal is to move money from here to there. And anything that gets in the way of that is not good from their point of view.”

Lending credence to Smith’s assessment is a 2021 report by watchdog group NGO Monitor. The report, “USAID-funded Palestinian NGOs: Introducing Children to Convicted Terrorists,” found that USAID gave tens of millions to NGOs between 2015-2019 whose sub-grantees ran educational programs that “presented convicted terrorists as role models, and publicly demonstrated support for terrorists and terrorist organizations.”

The report noted that public information about the sub-grantees was readily available at the time the grants were made, but was ignored by USAID, “indicating a failure to properly vet grantees.” The report also noted that several of the incidents took place during the grant period, “reflecting the need to continue to monitor grantees after funds are approved.”

Among the activities the sub-grantees promoted were meetings arranged between children and terrorists, mini-“morality plays” where children acted out scenes between Palestinian prisoners and IDF soldiers (including at a school for the deaf), and terrorist promotion on social media. In the wake of the pro-terror event at the Al Umariya Girls school, NGO-Monitor told JNS it’s “taking a closer look” at the agency’s involvement at the school.

USAID’s spokesperson said, “As is the case around the world, the United States will provide assistance in the West Bank and Gaza through experienced and trusted partners that distribute aid directly to people in need. All of our current and planned assistance is consistent with U.S. law.”

Said Smith, “I would say that they ought to, at a minimum, condemn the message that was sent in terms of praising terrorists and murderers and all that.” Asked by JNS if they had condemned the event at the girls school, USAID did not respond.

To tackle USAID’s problem, a fundamental shift is needed in which the agency is incentivized to pay more attention to where its money is going, Smith said, noting USAID staff are not rewarded for withholding aid. “Their job is to push money out, to send money to needy people. If they’re not doing that, then they’re not doing their job,” he said. What’s needed are ways to encourage them to send money to suitable recipients.

Cultural issues need to be overcome in the foreign aid arena. “A certain mindset develops where other considerations are minimized,” he said, noting that some of the NGOs which work closely with USAID have said openly that U.S. terror finance laws should be loosened. “They don’t sympathize with terrorists. They just feel that the work they do is more important and that you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. So who cares if terrorists get a little money.”

“There’s a kind of blindness there,” Smith noted. They’re trying to help poor people but they’re sending aid to groups that ensure that poverty will continue. “If you change the incentives, you could help change that mindset,” he said.

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