The United States is withholding more than half of its planned funding of a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, renewing debate over the Trump administration’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The State Department announced Jan. 16 the U.S. will withhold $65 million from a $125 million package for humanitarian aid for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
The agency, founded in 1949, provides humanitarian services in the fields of education, health care and social and relief services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said earlier this month the White House wanted to defund UNRWA outright.
That came after the Palestinian Authority said President Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem disqualifies America as an unbiased mediator for Mideast peace.
President Trump reacted on Twitter, noting Jan. 2 “we pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect.”
“With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them,” the tweet continued.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert declined to say if Tuesday’s announcement was connected to the president’s tweet but said the aid reduction “is not aimed at punishing anyone.” She said the U.S. is instead asking other governments to “step up to the plate” and increase funding for the agency.
“We would like other countries — in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us — to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more,” Nauert said in a press conference. “So we’re asking other countries to do more.”
Nauert said the U.S. voluntarily pledged $60 million for 2018 to sustain schools and health services but the rest of the money is “being frozen at this time” and “held for future consideration.”
A Dec. 7 framework document raises questions about financial stability and internal governance and oversight but also seeks assurance the agency is operating with “principles of neutrality, humanity, independence and impartiality.”
The U.S. has historically been the UNRWA’s largest single donor, supplying nearly 30 percent of its budget. In December, the European Union increased funding for the agency, already strapped by increased demand. In 2017, the U.S. contributed more than $350 million to the agency, including $103 million for emergency operations in response to conflict in Syria.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent humanitarian organization that works in 31 countries, said the funding cut will have “devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.”
Israeli officials have accused UNRWA of misusing humanitarian aid and supporting anti-Israel propaganda. Some Israelis worry, however, that sharp reductions in such aid could further destabilize the region.
The Alliance of Baptists’ Community for Justice in Palestine & Israel urged members to write letters asking Congress to reject any U.S. funding cuts for UNRWA and to reverse the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“The U.S. announcement on Jerusalem was reckless and one-sided,” the group said in an action alert Jan. 18. “The fact that Palestinians would reject it is understandable, and threatening an aid cutoff is only adding insult to injury.”