The Trump administration has decided to cut more than $200 million in bilateral assistance to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the State Department said Friday.
The money will be redirected to “high priority projects elsewhere,” a notice sent to Congress stated.
The amount cut by the Trump administration represents most of the $250 million in aid requested annually by the State Department for 2018 and 2019.
The US had already frozen millions in aid to the Palestinian Authority earlier this year after Congress passed the Taylor Force Act. That legislation requires the suspension of funds benefiting the PA until it terminates payments to the families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and those of slain alleged attackers.
The suspension of funding has already diminished Palestinians’ access to medical services and food aid.
The US has continued to transfer funds to Palestinian Authority security forces that serve as an enforcement arm of the Israeli occupation.
In 2016 the Obama administration and Israel signed the largest aid package in US history, giving Israel $38 billion in military assistance over 10 years. President Donald Trump recently signed a defense bill codifying that aid pledge into law, one of the few parts of his predecessor’s legacy that he has wholeheartedly embraced.
Friday’s announcement of further cuts in aid to Palestinians comes days after a UN official warned that essential services in the occupied Gaza Strip will soon shut down if the purchase of emergency fuel isn’t immediately funded.
Gaza running out of fuel
It is the latest such warning regarding Gaza, whose two million residents have long been kept dangling over a cliff.
Donor-funded emergency fuel has become a lifeline in Gaza after 11 years of Israeli blockade that has deflated the territory’s economy and sharply increased residents’ dependence on humanitarian aid.
Emergency fuel is used to operate health, water and sanitation facilities, particularly backup generators at Gaza’s hospitals. Chronic power shortages mean that most households in Gaza have electricity no more than four or five hours per day.
“We have now run out of funds and are delivering the final supplies in the next few days,” humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick said on Monday.
“Without funds to enable ongoing deliveries, service providers will be forced to suspend, or heavily reduce, operations from early September, with potentially grave consequences.”
Gaza patients depending on electrical equipment in intensive care units, those on dialysis or in trauma departments are most vulnerable to electricity shortages, according to McGoldrick’s office.
The electricity crisis has also forced doctors to postpone complex surgeries since they cannot guarantee that essential equipment can operate for long enough without interruption.
Almost the entire population in Gaza would be affected by reduction or cessation of health services if Gaza’s main hospitals run out of emergency fuel, McGoldrick’s office said.
Half the population of two million faces the risk of sewage overflow if fuel for pumping stations is exhausted.
UNRWA schools to open – for now
Meanwhile the school year is set to start on time for more than 240,000 Palestinian refugee children in Gaza who are educated in United Nations facilities after fears that funding cuts would necessitate delay.
But UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said last week that it only has enough money to keep its more than 700 schools in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria open until the end of September.
The agency is in crisis after the Trump administration withheld $300 million in funding earlier this year. The US was UNRWA’s single largest donor.
Last month UNRWA announced cuts to emergency services which would result in layoffs of more than 100 of its nearly 13,000 employees in Gaza and salary reductions for hundreds more. That is a huge blow in Gaza, where half the population is unemployed.
This week Krähenbühl suggested – as had already been made clear by Trump administration officials themselves – that the withholding of funding was meant to punish Palestinians for protesting the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in early December.
US squeezes UNRWA
Krähenbühl told the Associated Press that “I can say with a great degree of confidence that the decision [to withhold funding] was not related to UNRWA’s performance, because in November I had received very constructive and openly positive feedback on those issues.”
After “tensions increased around the question of Jerusalem” following Trump’s announcement, Krähenbühl added, “It appears that the humanitarian funding to UNRWA got caught up in the deep polarization around that question.”
In an email sent to several other senior Trump administration officials on 11 January, Kushner stated that UNRWA “perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”
Israel and its most fervent advocates have long argued that the existence of UNRWA is what perpetuates the question of Palestinian refugees, rather than Israel’s refusal to respect their rights.
Such advocates therefore believe that dissolving UNRWA would make the issue of Palestinian refugees – whose fate has been repeatedly kicked down the road as a “final status issue” during decades of fruitless peace negotiations – disappear as well.
Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that UNRWA “needs to pass from this world.”
Israel refuses to allow Palestinians to return to the homes and lands from which they were ethnically cleansed because they are not Jews.
Yet that seems to be the strategy the Trump administration is pursuing, regardless of the dire humanitarian and political consequences.