Senate Democrats to Trump: Cuts to Palestinian Aid Will Strengthen Hamas

Thirty-four lawmakers call on U.S. president to reverse decision, saying cuts reduce chance of future peace deal and 'threaten Israel’s security'

Palestinian UNRWA employees at a protest against job cuts, in Gaza City, September 19, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Thirty-four Democratic senators, more than a third of the U.S. Senate, signed a letter on Friday criticizing the Trump administration’s recent string of decisions to slash all American aid to the Palestinians. The senators warned that he cuts, including the cutting of aid to hospitals in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem and to groups that organize meetings between Israeli and Palestinian children, will ultimately harm Israel's security.

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Overall, the administration has cut more than $200 million of aid that Congress had already approved to the Palestinians for the current fiscal year. Most of the funds was not supposed to go to the Palestinian Authority, but rather to independent institutions such as humanitarian groups in Gaza and the West Bankl; private sector firms based in the West Bank that had contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development; and hospitals in East Jerusalem.

In fact, despite the administration’s constant verbal attacks on the Palestinian Authority, the only aid that it hasn't cut is direct assistance it gives the PA for its security operations. The funds for that purpose, approximately $60 million, was transferred to Ramallah over the summer.

Now, Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling on Trump to reverse the  cuts, which they say will lead to a humanitarian deterioration and in the long-run also hurt Israel’s security. The letter sent to Trump this week was drafted by Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Chris’s Coons of Delaware and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and was signed by 31 other Democratic senators, out of the 47 in Senate.

Refugee schoolchildren attend an official ceremony to return to school at one of the UNRWA schools at a Palestinian refugee camp al Wehdat, in Amman, Jordan, September 2, 2018
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

The lawmakers wrote that “eliminating funds for programs that provide clean water, food, education, and medical services for Palestinians will exacerbate poverty, fuel extremism, further reduce the chance of a future peace agreement and threaten Israel’s security.”

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They noted that “by law, U.S. foreign assistance cannot be directed to the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. Instead, Congress has appropriated funds to provide assistance directly to the Palestinian people, including millions of children in the Palestinian territories. The cuts you have proposed would make a desperate situation even worse.”

The senators also wrote that “We are deeply concerned that your strategy of attempting to force the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table by withholding humanitarian assistance from women and children is misguided and destined to backfire. Your proposed cuts would undermine those who seek a peaceful resolution and strengthen the hands of Hamas and other extremists in the Gaza Strip, as the humanitarian crisis there worsens.”

The senators criticized Trump’s decision to end all American aid to UNRWA, the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees and their descendants. They warned that the agency “provides food assistance to one million people in Gaza,” as well as “secular education for 525,000 kids, half of them girls” and vaccinations to civilians in all the Palestinian refugee camps. The lack of those services, the senators noted, could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

The senators wrote that they believe these budget cuts could be dangerous for Israel.

Earlier this week, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that the Israeli military has made a similar warning. The report said that Israeli miltiary chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, told cabinet ministers in a closed-door session that Trump’s steps against the Palestinians have significantly increased the likelihood of a violent uprising in the West Bank.

A Democratic staffer who was involved in efforts to get signatures for the letter told Haaretz that “there are also some Republicans who agree with this message, but they don’t want to criticize Trump in public.” The staffer noted that the aid to the Palestinians for the current fiscal year, which Trump has all but eliminated, was approved by a bi-partisan majority in both houses of Congress.