WASHINGTON — The United States Agency for International Development will reportedly lay off over half of its employees in the West Bank and Gaza in the coming weeks, with the intention of completely shuttering its facilities by next year.
According to the Haaretz daily, the US State Department has told USAID, one of the largest humanitarian outfits operating in the Middle East, that by December it will need to provide a list of 60 percent of its employees in the West Bank and Gaza who can be released as the first step in the shutting down of operations.
A Trump administration official contacted by The Times of Israel neither confirmed nor denied this development.
“We will assess future US assistance in the West Bank and Gaza in a global context, with a focus on areas in which we can best advance US national interests and ensure value to the US taxpayer,” a State Department official said. “No decisions have been made about future staffing at Embassy Jerusalem’s USAID mission.”
Officials from USAID told Haaretz that the policy to stop funding is an attempt to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter Trump-brokered peace talks with Israel.
In July and August, US President Donald Trump ordered a series of cuts to US-backed Palestinian aid initiatives, including nearly $200 million the US had planned to spent on humanitarian programs.
“We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel,” Trump tweeted at the time. “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, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”
…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. But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
After the president formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year and moved the embassy there from Tel Aviv, the Palestinians have refused to engage with the White House, saying they forfeited their capacity to act as honest mediators in negotiations.
PA officials were defiant when Washington announced the funding cuts.
“The US administration is demonstrating the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool,” Hanan Ashrawi said at the time. “The Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.”
USAID is responsible for providing civilian assistance to developing countries around the world. Its offices in the West Bank and Gaza opened in the 1990s, after the Oslo Peace Accords, to help Palestinians gain access to clean water, healthcare and educational programs. It has spent roughly $5.5 billion in the Palestinian territories on various construction projects, most notably, the building of schools.
The decision lay off the vast majority of its staff and eventually close USAID’s offices was met with criticism from left-wing advocacy groups in the United States.
J Street, the liberal Jewish organization, said in a statement the move was “a cruel and dangerous act designed to promote the hardline agenda of the Israeli right.
“These steps appear tailor-made to exacerbate suffering, destroy trust and obstruct the pursuit of peace,” it added. “Any so-called ‘peace plan’ that the administration puts forward in the wake of these moves will be an absolute sham.”