US withholds $65m in Palestinian aid

WASHINGTON – The United States on Tuesday said it would withhold about half the initial aid it planned to give a UN agency that serves the Palestinians, two weeks after President Donald Trump questioned the value of such funding.

In announcing that it would provide $60 million ($F120m) to the UN Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRWA) while withholding a further $65m ($F130m)for now, the US State Department said the aid group needed to make unspecified reforms.

Palestine Liberation Organization official Wasel Abu Youssef immediately criticised the move, casting it as a deliberate US effort to deny the Palestinians their rights and linking it to Mr Trump’s widely criticised December 6 decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was unaware of any cut in aid but he was “very concerned” about the possibility because it “is an important factor of stability.”

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl said in a statement that the reduced US contribution “threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavours in the Middle East.”

The decision to keep back some money was likely to compound the difficulty of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to further undermine Arabs’ faith that the United States could act as an impartial arbitrator.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions and to Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seeked for a state, among other factors.

“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,” said Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Even if Washington provided the additional $65m ($F130m), the $125m ($F250m) total would be well below the $355m ($F710m) that a US official said it gave UNRWA in the 2017 fiscal year that ended September 30.

While saying the decision would sustain schools and health services, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert echoed Mr Trump in calling on other nations to provide more money because he believed the United States paid more than its share.

The State Department wrote a letter notifying UNRWA of the decision, Ms Nauert said.

She said that while UNRWA reforms were a condition of releasing more money, the aid decision was “not aimed at punishing” anyone.

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