U.S. withholds $65 million from United Nations aid for Palestine

Posted January 19, 2018

Belgium announced Thursday an emergency pledge of $23 million to be allocated over a three year period to provide support in lieu of $65 million withheld from the $125 million January tranche to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by the U.S.

Washington is the largest single contributor to UNRWA's finances and past year donated more than $364m to fund humanitarian projects to approximately 5.2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

But when asked if halving the budget to Palestinian refugees was meant as punitive measure related to the criticisms raised by Israeli officials, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the decision was fiscal, not political.

In a letter dated December 17, State Department Comptroller Eric Hembree told the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, that it would pay the money in response to a West Bank and Gaza Emergency Appeal "by or before early January 2018", said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal State Department matters. The administration also made clear that future donations from the US would be contingent on major reforms that will be implemented by the UNRWA. "We're not going to reward bad behavior", she said.

Belgium, together with other European Union member states, is now UNRWA's largest donor.

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Trump's aides initially debated whether to cut off all UNRWA aid, an unidentified U.S. official said, but those opposed argued that could further destabilise the region. "So we're asking other countries to do more".

The services UNRWA provides "are of extreme importance, not only for the well-being of this population, and there is a serious humanitarian concern here", he said. Making these technical changes puts it in line with all other refugee agencies and reduces the number of Palestine refugees from 5.3 million to around 20,000.

"The reduced contribution also impacts regional security at a time when the Middle East faces multiple risks and threats, notably that of further radicalisation", he said.

Israel had urged the USA to stop funding UNRWA, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying last week that the agency "must disappear from the world".

A statement issued by Hanan Ashrawi of the executive council of the Palestine Liberation Organization accused Washington of seeking to dismantle UNRWA at Israel's behest.

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"This administration is thereby targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Palestinian people and depriving the refugees of the right to education, health, shelter and a dignified life", the statement continued.

The agency has laid off dozens of staff members in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and more than 100 employees in Jordan because of the delay and subsequent cut in the U.S. payment, Haaretz reported on Monday. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians either fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to Israel's establishment in 1948. It is even more appalling and cruel to also cut assistance funding for Palestine refugees. "At stake is the access of refugees to primary healthcare, including prenatal care and other lifesaving services".

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which aids displaced people across the world, warned that the U.S. move would have "devastating consequences" on hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who depend on UNRWA services to survive. While Abbas was in Cairo today for a summit on Jerusalem with Arab League officials, the Secretary-General, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, said the U.S.'s "decision does not come apart from recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and [Israeli] settlement building", reported Anadolu Agency. Trump and Haley have since threatened to cut off humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians unless the Palestinian Authority agrees to participate in US -brokered peace talks with Israel.

But although the agency is trying to lay the blame for the layoffs at America's doorstep, UNRWA had already made a decision to begin slashing expenses: an already ballooning deficit of $174 million preceded the US funding cut.

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