US denies freezing millions in aid to Palestinian refugee agency

Decision on slashing funds to UNRWA ‘under review,’ says State Department official; White House rebuffs report of missed January 1 deadline

Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a UN distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip in November 2012 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a UN distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip in November 2012 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

WASHINGTON — Senior US officials on Friday denied reports that $125 million in aid to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency had been frozen over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to enter US-led peace talks with Israel.

“Contrary to reports that we have halted funding to UNRWA, the decision is under review,” a State Department official told The Times of Israel. “There are still deliberations taking place, and we have missed no deadline.”

Earlier on Friday, Channel 10 news reported that $125 million in US funding that should have been transferred to UNRWA by January 1 was being held up because the White House is furious over the Palestinians’ reaction to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.

The TV report said that while that initial payment had been frozen, the administration was actually considering cutting altogether a total of some $180 million from its UNRWA payments — about half of the annual budget. It said a meeting on the issue took place at the White House on Friday, and that no final decision had been taken.

A White House official also responded to the TV report on Friday, confirming to The Times of Israel that no decision had been taken on the issue.

“There is no existing schedule that obligates the United States to provide specific amounts of aid to UNWRA on specific dates,” the official said. “The decisions of when to provide aid in the fiscal year, and in what allocations, lie with the Secretary of State.”

“At this time, no such decisions have been made,” the official added.

US President Donald Trump speaking about his administration’s National Security Strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC, December 18, 2017. (SAUL LOEB/AFP)

Relations between Trump’s White House and the Palestinians have been tense since Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem announcement.

The declaration led Abbas to break off all contact with the Trump administration, and he has refused to meet with US officials regarding the peace process, including envoy Jason Greenblatt and Vice President Mike Pence.

On Tuesday, Trump threatened to cut off aid to the PA, asking why Washington should make “any of these massive future payments” when the Palestinians were “no longer willing to talk peace.”

The Palestinians rely heavily on international aid, with many analysts, including Israelis, saying such assistance helps maintain stability in a volatile region.

“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” Trump tweeted. “They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel. We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.”

It was not immediately clear whether Trump was threatening all of the budget, worth $319 million in 2016, according to US government figures.

Palestinian girls at a UNRWA school in Gaza. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinian girls at a UNRWA school in Gaza. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to publicly address the reports about possible slashed American funding to UNRWA, Channel 10 reported Thursday that he is privately urging the US not to go through with the cuts.

The report said Netanyahu would publicly back the move, amid pressure from right-wing lawmakers such as Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and in order not to undermine Trump.

But the Axios news site said that Netanyahu has been in contact with the White House regarding UNRWA funding and that Israel prefers a “gradual disengagement” from the refugee agency.

In response to the report, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Netanyahu supports President Trump’s critical attitude towards UNRWA and believes practical steps need to be taken in order to change the fact that UNRWA is being used to entrench the Palestinian refugee problem instead of solving it.”

An Israeli security source also told Channel 10 the funding cuts to UNRWA would make an already tense situation in Gaza “much worse.”

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