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US aid cut to be catastrophic for Palestinians

Palestinians say Trump is blackmailing them by issuing the threat and blame him for peace talk snags

Image Credit: AP
Sacks of flour, some part of humanitarian aid by UNRWA and USAID, but now offered for sale by a vendor, sit outside a food store in Gaza City.
Gulf News

Washington: The Trump administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, cutting the year’s first contribution by more than half or perhaps entirely, and making additional donations contingent on major changes to the organisation, according to US officials.

President Donald Trump hasn’t made a final decision, but appears more likely to send only $60 million of the planned $125 million first installment to the UN Relief and Works Agency, said the officials, who weren’t authorised to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Future contributions would require the agency, facing heavy Israeli criticism, to demonstrate significant changes in operations, they said, adding that one suggestion under consideration would require the Palestinians to first re-enter peace talks with Israel.

Palestinians say this is tantamount to blackmail and say their reluctance to engage in peace talks is a reaction to Trump’s unilateral decision to recognise Occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Palestinians want Jerusalem to be the capital of their future promised state and say the move has undermined this objective.

They say Trump is blaming and intimidating the victim by threatening to withhold aid.

The State Department said Sunday that “the decision is under review. There are still deliberations taking place.” The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the matter.

The administration could announce its decision as early as Tuesday, the officials said.

The plan to withhold some of the money is backed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who offered it as a compromise to demands for more drastic measures by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the officials said.

Haley wants a complete cutoff in US money until the Palestinians resume peace talks with Israel that have been frozen for years.

But Tillerson, Mattis and others say ending all assistance would exacerbate instability in the Mideast, notably in Jordan, a host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and a crucial US strategic partner.

“The human impact of losing significant funding could be catastrophic in the real lives of real people whom the UN is mandated to protect,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunnes said on Friday.

In another sign of the growing tensions in the region, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas railed at Trump in a fiery, two-hour-long speech on Sunday, saying “shame on you” for his treatment of the Palestinians and warning that he would have no problem rejecting what he suggested would be an unacceptable peace plan.

The speech by Abbas ratcheted up what has been more than a month of harsh rhetoric toward Trump since the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

The US is the Relief and Works Agency’s largest donor, supplying nearly 30 per cent of its total budget.

The agency focuses on providing health care, education and social services to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to Israel’s establishment in 1948.

Today, there are an estimated 5 million refugees and their descendants, mostly scattered across the region.

Eliminating or sharply reducing the US contribution could hamstring the agency and severely curtail its work, putting great pressure on Jordan and Lebanon as well as the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza would be particularly hard hit.

Some officials, including Israelis, warn that it might push people closer to the militant Hamas movement, which controls Gaza.

The US officials said any reduction in American assistance could be accompanied by calls for European nations and others to help make up the shortfall.

The US donated $355 million in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year” the first installment was to have sent this month.

But after a highly critical Jan. 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending any of the $125 million.

Trump’s tweet blamed the Palestinians for the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he said. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Although Trump referred to all US assistance to the Palestinians, the contribution to the refugee agency would be the first to be affected.

Trump has been considered to be the most pro-Israeli US president to date and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has deep financial ties with Israeli business moguls.

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