In a sign that the United States is ratcheting up pressure on Palestinian leadership, the Trump administration sent notice to UNRWA that it is withholding over half of this year’s annual commitment, paying $60 million and freezing another $65 million. The move indicates the U.S. is leveraging its hefty payments to the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA) to pressure Palestinian officials into acquiescing to its vision for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The reactions from Palestinian leaders have been serious, reflecting a diplomatic crisis point that began in December after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Children’s access to basic humanitarian services is not a bargaining chip but a U.S. and international obligation,” Palestinian Ambassador to the U.S. Husam Zomlot (who is a Palestinian refugee from Al-Shabura camp in southern Gaza) said in a statement released today from Washington DC.
“[T]aking away food and education from vulnerable refugees does not bring a lasting and comprehensive peace,” Zomlot added, noting Trump’s decision lined up with statements made two weeks ago from Israel’s Prime Minister who called to shut down UNRWA.
“[H]eeding Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s zero sum game to take Jerusalem off the table and now attempting to dismantle UNRWA, thinking that it would relinquish the rights of Palestinian refugees is a fallacy,” he said.
Similarly, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah also laid blame beyond Trump on Israel.
“The U.S. Administration seems to be following Netanyahu’s instructions to gradually dismantle the one agency that was established by the international community to protect the rights of the Palestinian refugees and provide them with essential services,” the PLO said in a statement.
“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.
Neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made comments since the funding cut was announced. 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.
“This scheme targets the Palestinian cause through Jerusalem, refugees and land,” Aboul-Gheit continued, “East Jerusalem is an occupied territory and is the capital of the state of Palestine.”
The statements suggests that while the U.S. aims to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table by way of slashing aid, the Palestinians are evaluating other options. The latest controversy could easily peak into a formal cutting of ties between Palestinian leaders and the U.S., when it comes to the peace process.
Leading up to the meeting, senior Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat suggested just that. He gave his own redline to the Trump administration–reverse the Jerusalem statement or negotiations would not proceed. Since then, the barbs traded by Trump over social media and Palestinian leaders by way of press releases and a meeting of high-ranking officials has only entrenched positions. The PLO made a non-binding decision to suspend recognition of Israel, endorse boycotts against Israel, and terminate the Oslo Accords at the start of the week.
The fate of Palestinian refugees have long been considered a final status issue to be determined in a negotiations process. Palestinian refugees number some 7 million, of whom 5.2 million are registered with UNRWA. This number isn’t a political tally; refugees registered with UNRWA do not receive asylum protections in the traditional sense, the way a person who fled war in Syria would be once granted refugee status in a second country. Instead, Palestinians registered with UNRWA receive UN services, primarily education, healthcare, and food aid.
UN support is particularly dire for Palestinians in Gaza, where 80 percent of the population relies on some form of UNRWA assistance. In the West Bank, there are more than 800,000 registered Palestinian refugees.
Last summer after it was discovered that Hamas built tunnels running below two United Nations schools in Gaza, Netanyahu said, “I told U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley that it’s time to dismantle UNRWA.” Yesterday Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon intimated cutting the funding was a punishment for actions taken against Israel in or near UN facilities. Danon said, “UNRWA 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,” reported the Jerusalem Post.
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. “[O]ur main point today is asking other countries to step up to the plate, not making the United States be the single largest donor or the sole donor, and other countries to step in and do more.”