Biden Admin Raised Concerns Palestinian Aid Would Boost Hamas. It Went Ahead With Aid Anyway.

Internal docs show Biden admin knew there was a 'high risk' Hamas would benefit from U.S. aid

(Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)
August 16, 2023

The Biden administration pushed through plans to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer aid to the Palestinians despite internal assessments that those plans could boost the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas, according to internal documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

State Department officials in 2021 outlined the concerns in private communications, asking the Treasury Department to exempt them from laws that bar the U.S. government from injecting taxpayer aid into territories controlled by Palestinian terror groups. The Biden administration needed this authorization in order to move forward with its plans to unfreeze more than $360 million in U.S. funds for the Palestinian Authority that were cut off during the Trump administration due to the authority's support for terrorists.

"We assess there is a high risk Hamas could potentially derive indirect, unintentional benefit from U.S. assistance to Gaza. There is less but still some risk U.S. assistance would benefit other designated groups," the State Department wrote in a draft sanctions exemption request circulated internally in March 2021, shortly after Biden took office. "Notwithstanding this risk, State believes it is in our national security interest to provide assistance in the West Bank and Gaza to support the foreign policy objectives."

The documents—obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust—show the Biden administration was privately worried its efforts to restart Palestinian aid could benefit Hamas and other terror factions operating in the Gaza Strip. As officials publicly provided assurances to Congress and the press that this aid would be doled out "consistent with U.S. law," the State Department was scrambling to secure a sanctions exemption that would let it skirt anti-terrorism laws.

The State Department claimed it needed broad authorities to conduct work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip "that would otherwise be prohibited by the Global Terrorist Sanctions Regulations and the Foreign Terrorist Organization Sanctions Regulations," according to a draft version of the request.

"Such authorization would enable activities, including assistance activities, that are critical to support the administration's efforts to advance prosperity, security, and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians and to advance and preserve the prospects of a negotiated solution in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state," according to the draft request.

The previously unknown draft request adds credibility to warnings from Republicans at the time that aid would bolster terror groups. In April 2021, 18 Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) sent a letter to the administration calling for Palestinian aid to be halted until measures could be put in place to prevent it from benefiting terrorists.

The internal documents obtained by the Free Beacon include the draft of the exemption request as well as internal emails discussing the need for the Treasury Department to grant it. One email, sent to over a dozen State Department employees, said it was urgently needed to push the Biden administration’s "foreign policy objectives," which included an immediate resumption of funding to the Palestinian government.

State Department officials said they did not specify what programs or activities they intended to fund if exempted from counterterrorism laws due to the need for "broad flexibility." Instead, they would only provide the Treasury Department with "illustrative examples" including a list of assistance projects totaling over $200 million, according to one of the emails.

The State Department also asked for the exemption to be unclassified, "so relevant U.S. government agencies can share a copy with partners," such as other governments and nonprofits.

State Department officials did not immediately return a request for comment on whether its assessment about the risk of U.S. aid bolstering Hamas was ultimately conveyed to the Treasury Department, or if the reference was deleted before the request was sent. The Treasury Department declined to comment on the matter, citing a policy of not discussing exemptions that may have been granted.

The administration ultimately moved forward with its plans to restart Palestinian aid, just months after the State Department’s internal wrangling over the issue.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter told the Free Beacon that the State Department's early assessment of the risks of restarting aid should have given the Biden administration pause.

"The fact that there was a high risk that Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organization, would benefit from U.S. assistance should have been enough to at least give the administration some pause in resuming aid, if not keep it from restarting it altogether," said the official, who would only discuss the matter on background.

As the administration began pumping hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars into the Palestinian government’s coffers, Republicans in Congress claimed the funding ran afoul of additional U.S. laws as well.

Under the Taylor Force Act, a bipartisan 2018 law, the United States is barred from awarding funds to the Palestinian government until it stops paying salaries to imprisoned terrorists and their families, a policy known as "pay to slay."

The State Department said in a non-public 2022 report to Congress that the Palestinian government "continued payments to Palestinian prisoners who had committed acts of terrorism, as well as the families of so-called ‘martyrs’ who died while committing acts of terrorism."

Michael Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public's Trust, which sued the administration for stonewalling its FOIA request, said the latest cache of internal State Department documents indicate the administration was aware its funding efforts could violate the law.

"The Taylor Force Act was a bipartisan effort to prevent American taxpayer dollars from funding terrorists and rewarding terrorism," Chamberlain said. "But here it appears State Department officials were trying to get around the law’s restrictions and send resources in a manner that even they thought was likely to result in funds ending up in the hands of a group designated as a terrorist organization."

The Biden administration, he added, "talks a good game about respecting the rule of law and being the most ethical administration in history. But too often it is willing to ignore those ideals to advance a policy objective—even when that objective may conflict with the law."