Trump slashes millions in aid to Palestinians as fallout from Jerusalem decision escalates

Thousands of refugees rely on the aid for access to education, health care, and other basic necessities.

A man carries sacks of flours during a food aid distribution by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at Al-Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on January 15, 2018. CREDIT: Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A man carries sacks of flours during a food aid distribution by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) at Al-Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza City, Gaza on January 15, 2018. CREDIT: Photo by Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

President Trump has withheld more than half of U.S.-pledged aid to a U.N. organization for Palestinians, the Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday.

The White House informed the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) of the dramatic funding cut earlier the same day, an unnamed official told the outlet. The decision means the organization will receive approximately $60 million in U.S. aid, a figure reportedly suggested by top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The remaining $65 million pledged by the United States is being withheld “for future consideration” — leaving UNRWA vulnerable.

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“The United States has been UNRWA’s single largest donor for decades. In years past, we contributed some 30 percent of UNRWA’s total income,” a U.S. official told Haaretz. “It is time for a change. The United States remains committed to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, as it is demonstrating today by assuring that funds are available to keep schools and health systems operating. If there are additional urgent needs, we call on others to also do their part and respond as needed […].”

In a statement released Tuesday evening, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said the organization now “faces a formidable challenge in upholding its mandate… and preserving key services like education and health care for Palestine Refugees.”

Krähenbühl called on other UN member states and allies of the organization to rally in support and push for full funding. “The U.S. government has consistently commended our high-impact, transparency and accountability,” he said. “This was reiterated, once again, during my latest visit to Washington in November 2017, when every senior U.S. official expressed respect for UNRWA’s role and for the robustness of its management.”

That announcement follows weeks of criticism over Trump’s recent foreign policy decisions. The president once called peace between Israelis and Palestinians the “ultimate deal,” but much of his presidency has been spent toying with the idea of declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, something the White House finally formalized in December. That same day, officials announced the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv would be relocated to Jerusalem as soon as feasibly possible, a move world leaders roundly condemned. The United Nations voted overwhelmingly to reject Trump’s announcement and many Palestinians also protested the move, with some declaring it the end of any potential peace talks.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley indicated at the time that the U.N. vote would have repercussions, including the potential loss of funding for Palestinians. On Tuesday, that threat became a reality.

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The decision has already set off a firestorm among Palestinian advocates. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday that the decision could have devastating implications for Palestinian refugees, many of whom rely on U.S. funding.

“In his most recent display of desperation over the failure to advance the so-called ‘ultimate deal’ by giving the Israelis everything they ask for, President Trump is taking it out on Palestinian refugees who rely heavily on humanitarian assistance, particularly in Gaza where the economic and humanitarian situation is dire,” Munayyer said.

Many Palestinians live without reliable access to water, hospitals, and electricity, a situation that has grown increasingly dire in recent years under Israel’s right-wing government. UNRWA serves as a crucial lifeline for Palestinians in both the occupied territories and neighboring areas like Jordan and Lebanon, which host large Palestinian populations. One 18-year-old Palestinian refugee, Yazan Muhammad Sabri, told Al Jazeera that an end to funding for UNRWA would have unthinkable consequences for the community.

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“If the wakala [UNRWA] goes away, there will be no education, no healthcare, no sanitation,” Sabri said. “There won’t be anything — everything will disappear.”

The funding announcement only applies to the first aid installment of the year, but some advocates argue that the decision will have long-term consequences for the organization’s relationship with the United States.

“By slashing funds to UNRWA, Trump is severing a decades old relationship and commitment by the United States to Palestinian refugees, who continue to lack protection and citizenship while Israel denies them the right of return to their homes,” Munayyer said. “This shameful decision should been seen in the broader anti-humanitarian and anti-refugee attitude of this administration, which has found new and unique ways to take the Israeli/Palestinian morass and make it increasingly worse.”

The decision is also likely to have far-reaching effects, well beyond the initial blow to UNRWA. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas blasted Trump on Sunday, accusing him of working with Israel to destroy the Oslo Accords, an Israeli-Palestinian peace framework established more than two decades ago.

“We will not accept for the U.S. to be a mediator, because after what they have done to us — a believer shall not be stung twice in the same place,” Abbas said, criticizing Trump’s funding threats. “Damn your money!”


This piece has been updated to include UNRWA’s official statement.