102 Democrats in Congress urge Trump not to cut Palestinian aid
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102 Democrats in Congress urge Trump not to cut Palestinian aid

US lawmakers say slashing UNRWA funding will damage American interests and encourage extremism

Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinians collect food aid at a United Nations food distribution center in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 28, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Over half of the Democrats in Congress are urging US President Donald Trump to rethink his decision to significantly slash aid to the UN agency working with Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

In a letter on Friday, 102 lawmakers said cutting tens of millions of dollars in US contributions to the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) would intensify anti-Israel sentiment, damage national interests in the region, and diminish prospects for a two-state solution.

“Continuing to freeze this aid will harm American interests by exacerbating the threats facing both peoples and reducing the United States’ ability to help the Israelis and Palestinians reach a two-state solution,” the letter said.

They warned that “deliberately exacerbating the hardship of the Palestinian people and reducing the ability of their government to function would only contribute to the benefit of those who reject engagement.”

“Extremist and anti-Israel groups would be all too eager to fill in the vacuum, deepening their hold in the region and expanding their destructive influence on the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” the US lawmakers said.

The letter also noted that Israel deems UNRWA’s work “so consequential to [its] security” that top officials have reportedly urged the Trump White House to reconsider the decision.

The letter was initiated by Congressman Peter Welch from Florida and David Price of North Carolina.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, February 8, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

UNRWA last month was notified that the US was withholding some $100 million and demanding a “fundamental re-examination” of the agency in addition to changes to its programs, which have been heavily criticized by Israel.

UNRWA, which serves some 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, had a budget of over $1 billion last year. The US gave $350 million of that amount and was the agency’s largest donor.

Trump in January told the World Economic Forum in Davos that the Palestinians must return to peace talks to receive US aid money.

In the wake of the announced budget cuts, UNRWA has stepped up fundraising efforts elsewhere, urging Arab states and European donors to make up the shortfall.

This week, Kuwait stepped in to contribute $900,000 and about 15 donor countries, including Sweden and Japan, decided to speed up their donations to keep UNRWA afloat, said UNRWA’s representative in New York Peter Mulrean.

But Mulrean told reporters at UN headquarters on Friday that the agency was facing an “existential financial crisis” as it seeks to fill the gap from the US funding cut.

A convoy of humanitarian aid waits in front of the UNRWA offices before making their way into the rebel-held towns of Madaya, Zabadani and al-Moadhamiya in the Damascus countryside, as part of a UN-sponsored aid operation, in Damascus, Syria, February 17, 2016. (AP)

Israel accuses UNRWA of helping to perpetuate the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s illegitimacy by granting refugee status to the descendants of refugees, even when they are born in other countries and have citizenship there, conditions that do not apply to the refugees cared for by the UN’s main refugee agency, UNHCR, which cares for all other refugees worldwide.The population of Palestinian refugees thus grows each year, even as other refugee populations in the world shrink with each passing generation.

UNRWA has been repeatedly accused of promoting anti-Israel sentiment in schools, a charge it has flatly rejected.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will attend a ministerial-level donors’ conference for UNRWA to be held next month in Geneva to fill the gap in funding, but it remains unclear if the United States will attend.

Last week, UNRWA’s director for the West Bank, Scott Anderson, said all of the agency’s services remain up and running for the time being, but that the decision had left many Palestinians anxious.

“People are frightened and concerned about what this means for them, their families and their future,” he said.

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