Leaders of global aid groups urge US to reverse fund cuts to UNRWA

Top executives of 21 NGOs say freeze would deny Palestinian refugees critical support, warn against ‘dangerous and striking departure from US policy’

Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)
Illustrative: A Palestinian woman outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, August 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra/File)

Top executives of 21 prominent aid groups have written a letter to senior officials in US President Donald Trump’s administration, urging them to restore funds for the United Nations agency aiding Palestinians, The New York Times reported  Wednesday.

The US State Department last week put on hold two planned payments of more than $100 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports more than five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants across the Middle East.

The State Department denied that the aid cut to UNRWA was to punish the Palestinian Authority, which has cut ties with Trump’s administration following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. A spokeswoman said it was linked to necessary “reform” of the agency.

The non-governmental organizations whose leaders signed the letter included Save the Children, Oxfam America, CARE USA, Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee.

In their letter, the aid groups’ leaders voiced concern that if maintained, the freeze would “disrupt Palestinian access to food, health care, education ‘and other critical support to vulnerable populations,'” the paper reported.

“We are particularly alarmed that this decision impacting humanitarian aid to civilians is not based on any assessment of need, but rather designed both to punish Palestinian political leaders and to force political concessions from them,” the leaders wrote in the letter.

A Palestinian woman rides in a car after collecting aid provided by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNWRA, in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

“This is simply unacceptable as a rationale for denying civilians humanitarian assistance, and a dangerous and striking departure from US policy on international humanitarian assistance.”

The letter was sent to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, the report said.

Israel has often criticized UNRWA, accusing it of sheltering terrorists and allowing Palestinians to remain refugees even after settling in a new city or country for generations, thus complicating a possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Wednesday, Hadashot news reported that the Trump administration was looking beyond its recent cuts, with the State Department reexamining the entirety of its aid budget to the Palestinian Authority. The TV station added that it was told that if the Palestinians end their boycott of the administration, budget cuts would be removed from the agenda.

Earlier this month, Trump asked why Washington should make “any of these massive future payments,” when the Palestinians were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

In a tweet, the president dismissed Palestinian fury over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying he had planned for Israel “to pay” in future negotiations for his declaration. But Palestinian intransigence was now preventing any progress on peace talks, he said.

Washington had been paying the Palestinian Authority hundreds of millions of dollars a year “for nothing,” he wrote, complaining that the US received “no appreciation or respect” in return.

“They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel,” he said. “We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.”

“But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace,” he went on, “why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

The US gave around $700 million in support to the Palestinians last year, of which about half went to UNRWA, which has a non-political mandate to provide schooling, health care, and other services to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

While welcomed in Israel, Trump’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital angered the Palestinians, who seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said that the US under Trump can no longer be a mediator in peace talks with Israel, even though Trump stressed the recognition was not a statement of position on the city’s final boundaries.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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