WASHINGTON - The Trump administration threatened to cut U.S. funding to the Palestinians on Tuesday amid the crisis in the peace process following U.S. President Donald Trump's speech recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Both the president and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made such threats, though with slightly different messaging.
Haley, speaking at a press conference in New York, answered a question about American funding to UNRWA, the United Nations' Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. The agency is responsible for supporting millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It supports more than five million people in the region, with the United States as its largest sponsor for years.
Trump, addressing the issue of Palestinian aid in a tweet, didn't mention UNRWA but rather spoke generally about funding to the Palestinians, saying that the United States "gives them hundreds of millions of dollars" but gets "no respect." He also tied the funding to the Palestinians' willingness to engage in American-led peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has declared its refusal to work with the Trump administration in light of its decision recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but expressed willingness to negotiate under the mediation of other international players such as Russia and the European Union.
All of this raises the following question - how much funding does the United States in fact give the Palestinians, and if it were cut, what would be the consequences?
With regards to UNRWA, the United States is indeed the most prominent donor to the organization. In 2016, according to UNRWA's donor charts, the United States gave $152 million directly to the agency, and contributed another $216 to projects related to the agency's work. Overall, the United States is listed as providing $368 to UNRWA's operations, about a quarter of the agency's entire budget.
If the United States stopped giving that money, however, the result won't necessarily pressure the Palestinian Authority. UNRWA's work is much more influential in areas not controlled by the PA, such as Gaza and the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, than in the West Bank.
The agency does, however, operate schools in the West Bank, which means that a massive cut to its budget wouldn't go unnoticed in the Palestinian Authority's territories. The agency would likely ask other countries, both in Europe and in the Arab world, to make up for the missing funds.
Cutting a quarter of the agency's budget could increase the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel has called in the past to shut down UNRWA, claiming that the agency prolongs the suffering of Palestinian refugees and their descendants by allowing Arab countries to avoid giving them full civil rights and economic opportunity.
Trump's tweet suggested, however, that he was looking at cutting not just the U.S. UNRWA budget, but general funding to the Palestinians.
A Congressional report from December 2016 stated that on average, ever since the Palestinian Authority's creation following the Oslo process in 1993, the United States has invested $400 million a year in the Palestinians. Most of this money has not gone directly to the PA, but rather to projects in the West Bank and in Gaza supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The report stated that the United States was due to invest $363 million in the Palestinian territories in 2017, with the vast majority of the sum going to USAID programs, and an approximate $36 million to directly support the Palestinian Authority's security forces. With regards to such support of Palestinian security forces, which work in coordination with Israel to stop terror attacks, the report mentions that they may have also received "covert" funding from the United States without providing more details.
These days, Congress is considering legislation that would significantly cut funding to the Palestinians through USAID programs, called the "The Taylor Force Act." The bill, named after an American citizen who was murdered in a terror attack in Tel Aviv in 2016, aims to cut U.S. funding to the Palestinians - except a number of programs such as hospitals in East Jerusalem, water projects and vaccination programs - as long as the Palestinian Authority continues paying salaries to convicted terrorists who are sitting in Israeli jails.
The Taylor Force Act, it should be noted, does not affect the budget allocated to the Palestinian security forces. While Israel supports the bill, it would likely oppose cuts to the funding given to the Palestinian security forces that work with Israeli counterparts on a regular basis and help maintain relative calm in the West Bank.
The bottom line is that the budget to USAID programs in the West Bank has already been facing a very real threat, long before Trump's tweet, because of the Taylor Force Act. The budget to the Palestinian security forces is unlikely to be slashed - not even by the current administration - because it serves Israeli and American security interests. Though it would hurt Palestinians in Gaza and neighboring countries more than Abbas' government in the West Bank, he United State's potential cut to UNRWA's funding is the largest threat Palestinians face.
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