World News

U.S. Withholds $65 Million From U.N. Relief Agency for Palestinians

Posted January 16, 2018 7:27 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is withholding more than half the funding that the United States generally has provided to a United Nations agency that aids Palestinian refugees, officials said Tuesday.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said the United States would provide $60 million to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency but would withhold $65 million “for future consideration.”

Nauert said that the decision was intended to encourage other countries to increase aid, as well as to promote reform at the relief agency — and that it was not intended to be a punitive move against Palestinians. But she refused to comment when asked if the funding shortfall was linked to President Donald Trump’s threat on Jan. 2 to end the aid after Palestinian leaders said the United States should no longer play a role in peace talks with Israel.

The withholding was denounced by the Palestinians and welcomed by Israel. “Once again, the U.S. administration proves its complicity with the Israeli occupation by attempting to remove another permanent status issue off the table,” said Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.

Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the U.N. Relief and Works Agency “has proven time and again to be an agency that misuses the humanitarian aid of the international community and instead supports anti-Israel propaganda, perpetuates the plight of Palestinian refugees and encourages hate.”

The agency funds schools and health clinics that serve nearly 2 million people in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As funding declined recently, the agency began significant layoffs of teachers and health workers, many of them refugees themselves.

Trump has turned U.S. policy sharply in favor of Israel and against the Palestinians. He has formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and threatened to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington.

The United States provided more than $355 million to support the relief agency’s 2016 operations, and also gave about $290 million last year to the Palestinians through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Altogether, the United States has provided about $5.2 billion in assistance to the Palestinians since 1994, a level of funding that is likely to be reduced in the coming years as the Trump administration works to cut foreign assistance.

Tuesday’s announced cut alarmed U.N. officials and aid groups that regard the U.N. Relief and Works Agency as a critical pillar of well-being for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza and in neighboring countries.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, which works in more than 30 countries, urged the Trump administration to reconsider, saying that the funding reduction will have “devastating consequences for vulnerablePalestinian refugees across the Middle East."

At the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “very concerned” about any cuts to the agency.

He said the relief agency’s services were of “extreme importance” to the populations of Palestinians who had lived as refugees for 70 years. Guterres said that was not only his opinion but “an opinion that is shared by most international observers, including some Israeli ones.”

Many Israelis worry that any rapid reduction in such aid could destabilize the region and force Israel to pick up a larger share of the costs. Jordan, where many Palestinians have settled, is also coping with a huge influx of Syrian refugees.

"That the Trump administration is using humanitarian aid for schools and hospitals as a cudgel to punish those who disagree with their policy decisions is deeply troubling,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group for peace in the region.

Robert B. Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he was “not a fan of massive cuts” to funding for the relief agency, saying he would prefer other solutions, such as changes to how Palestinians become eligible for refugee status.

U.N. funding for Palestinian refugees grows in part out of a longtime assumption that a Palestinian state would eventually be created. But cuts to that funding, along with other efforts that dim hopes for a two-state solution, could accelerate a shift among younger Palestinians to abandon the push for a separate state and instead demand full civil rights from Israel.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, is quietly continuing an effort to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that experts hope will at least persuade Palestinians not to suddenly end many accommodations with Israel.

“It is proximity that almost guarantees a continued accommodation,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. “The proximity also guarantees tension. That’s the paradox here.”