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US withholds millions from Palestinian aid programs

January 16, 2018

The US State Department has demanded the UN aid agency UNRWA "fundamentally re-examine" its work. President Trump has been critical of the agency and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for it to "disappear."

Palestinian carrying a bag of wheat distributed by the UNRWA | Symbolbild UNWRA (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/

US reduces aid to Palestinians

The US State Department announced Tuesday that it is withholding $65 million (€53 million) of a planned $125 million funding payment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

The State Department also declared that any future funding will be contingent upon the agency making major changes to "the way it operates and the way it is funded." The US will, however, still forward a payment of $60 million to prevent the agency from running out of money before the end of the month.

Read more: Robert Turner: 'It is easy to despair about Gaza'

Waiting for a clear policy

The State Department has said that it is waiting for a clear policy decision on Palestine before making further payments.

US President Donald Trump caused confusion over the US' stance with a tweet sent out on January 2, in which he was highly critical of Palestine: "We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect."

In a follow-up tweet he wrote: "But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make these massive future payments to them?"

Read more: Palestinian leaders seek to suspend recognition of Israel

Forcing the situation

Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have argued for a compromise approach to avoid exacerbating the strain that a total defunding could have on the region, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has called for a complete stoppage of funds as a way to force Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged President Trump to cut funding as well. He recently described UNRWA as "an organization that perpetuates the problem of the Palestinian refugees. It also perpetuates the narrative of the so-called 'right of return' with the aim of eliminating the state of Israel, and therefore UNRWA must disappear."

The UNRWA cares for some 5 million displaced Palestinians who come from what is now Israel. Those refugees are strewn across the region, living in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Read more: What would Donald Trump ending US aid mean for Palestinians?

UNRWA - part of the entire refugee problem?

Biggest donor

The US is the single biggest donor to the agency, giving roughly 30 percent of its annual budget. In 2016, the US contributed $355 million in voluntary donations and had been scheduled to donate a similar amount this year.

US State Department spokeswomen Heather Nauert said that there needs to be more "burden-sharing" when it comes to funding the agency, adding that the decision to withhold funds was "not aimed at punishing anyone."

Aid money, which is given on a volunteer basis, goes toward financing healthcare, education and social services to displaced Palestinians. Critics of the move have said that it will be counterproductive, placing strain on host countries, and potentially pushing desperate refugees into the arms of radical groups like Hamas. 

js/nm (AP, dpa)