The Palestinians accused Donald Trump of “targeting the innocent” yesterday after the US announced it was withholding tens of millions of dollars from the UN agency which supports Palestinian refugees.
The row is the latest public eruption between the White House and the Palestinians and the relationship between the two sides has all but collapsed since Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.
The argument centres around the the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which was created in 1949 to support Palestinian refugees and today gives aid to more than 5 million refugees in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring Arab countries.
The US has traditionally been the largest donor to UNRWA and last year gave $350 million to the agency (£254 million). The US had planned to give $120 million this year but announced this week that it was paying only $60 million and withholding the rest.
The State Department said there should be more “burden-sharing” of the cost of UNRWA and US officials said the agency needed to be fundamentally reformed.
Mr Trump complained on Twitter earlier this month that the US gives the Palestinians “hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel”.
…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
Chris Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman, said the shortfall plunged the agency into “the most severe financial crisis” in its 70-year history and warned that it could cause instability in the occupied West Bank and Gaza but also in Lebanon and Jordan.
“The potential consequences are nothing less than the stability of the Middle East. It could be catastrophic,” he said.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian official, said the decision showed the US “has no compunction in targeting the innocent”.
UNRWA is viewed with ambivalence in Israel. Politicians publicly lambast the agency, saying it perpetuates a victim mentality among Palestinians by passing refugee status from grandparents to parents to children.
Israel also accuses the agency of encouraging Palestinian refugees to believe they will one day be allowed to return to what is modern day Israel, something Israel will not allow to happen in any significant numbers.
But Israeli security officials privately acknowledge that the agency helps preserve stability in the West Bank and Gaza and provides services – like education and healthcare – that Israel might otherwise have to provide.
UNRWA said that for now it would be able to keep its schools and hospitals open but warned that services would have to be cut if more funding was not found. The agency plans to launch an emergency global appeal next week, asking states, charities and wealthy individuals for money.
Relations between the US and the Palestinians have been in free fall since Mr Trump ignored Palestinian and international objections and fulfilled his campaign promise to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said Wednesday he expected the US embassy would be moved to Jerusalem within a year – a faster timetable than the White House has suggested.
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The US also closed down the Palestinian diplomatic outpost in Washington, a move that was deeply humiliating for Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinians have said since they will refuse to accept the US as a mediator in any peace talks. Palestinian officials are refusing to meet Mike Pence, the US vice president, when he visits Jerusalem next week.
The White House has intended to present a proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the spring as part of Mr Trump’s ambitions to seal what he has called “the ultimate deal”. It is no longer clear if the US will move ahead with releasing its plans.