Belgium counters US cuts with $23 million for UN Palestinian fund
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Belgium counters US cuts with $23 million for UN Palestinian fund

Extra cash from Brussels comes as UNRWA launches fundraising campaign after the Trump administration withholds $65 million

Palestinians protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UN Relief and Works Agency offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018.  (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Palestinians protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UN Relief and Works Agency offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, January 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

BRUSSELS  — Belgium has stepped in to help out the UN Agency assisting Palestinian refugees with an immediate disbursement of $23 million after the Trump administration suspended $65 million in aid for the international organization.

Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Wednesday that “for a lot of Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA is the last life buoy.”

De Croo said he was responding to a global fundraising appeal from UNRWA in hopes of making up for funding cuts announced by the United States. The money is Belgium’s allocation for three years but because of the group’s immediate need, De Croo’s office said it will be “disbursed immediately.”

The US provides roughly one-third of UNRWA’s budget, and the agency has warned that it now faces the “most dramatic financial crisis” in its nearly 70-year history. The agency provides health care, education and social services to 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East.

UNRWA’s secretary-general, Pierre Krähenbühl, said the fundraising appeal would begin in the coming days. The agency said it is too soon to say which countries will be approached to fill the void or what services are at risk.

On Tuesday, the US State Department announced it would withhold $65 million of the $120 million it planned to contribute to UNRWA this month, one of several payments to the agency slated for 2018.

Palestinian women chant slogans during a protest against the US for withholding $65 million from Palestinian aid programs, in front of the UNRWA offices in the Nusseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The US notified UNRWA of the cut in a letter that also made clear that future US donations will be contingent on major changes by UNRWA.

“We would like to see some reforms be made,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, adding that changes were needed in the way the agency operates and is funded. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone.” Nauert said, adding that the US believes there needs to be more “burden-sharing,” a regular complaint by President Donald Trump about multilateral organizations dependent on significant contributions of US cash.

“We don’t believe that taking care of other nations and other people have to be solely the United States’ responsibility,” she said.

The US donated $355 million to UNWRA in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year, with the first installment to have been sent this month. But after a highly critical January 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending its first installment.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed the finger at the Palestinians. “We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he said. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

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