Palestinians at the entrance to an UNRWA office. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90) (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The US will withhold millions in aid to so-called Palestinian refugees, contingent on major changes to the organization and Palestinian progress towards peace. 

By: AP and United with Israel Staff

The Trump administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the United Nations agency for so-called Palestinian refugees, cutting the year’s first contribution by more than half, or perhaps entirely, and making additional donations contingent on major changes to the organization, according to US officials.

President Donald Trump hasn’t made a final decision, but appears more likely to send only $60 million of the planned $125 million first installment to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said the officials, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Future contributions would require the agency, facing heavy Israeli criticism, to demonstrate significant changes in operations, they said, adding that one suggestion under consideration would require the Palestinians to first re-enter peace talks with Israel.

The State Department said Sunday that “the decision is under review. There are still deliberations taking place.” The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the matter.

The administration could announce its decision as early as Tuesday, the officials said. The plan to withhold some of the money is backed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who offered it as a compromise to demands for more drastic measures by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the officials said.

Haley wants a complete cutoff in US money until the Palestinians resume peace talks with Israel that have been frozen for years. But Tillerson, Mattis and others say ending all assistance would exacerbate instability in the Mideast, notably in Jordan, a host to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and a crucial US strategic partner.

The US is UNRWA’s largest donor, supplying nearly 30 percent of its total budget. The agency supposedly focuses on providing health care, education and social services to Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Eliminating or sharply reducing the US contribution could hamstring the agency and severely curtail its work, putting great pressure on Jordan and Lebanon as well as the PA. Gaza would be particularly hard hit.

‘Why Should We Pay Them?’

The US officials said any reduction in American assistance could be accompanied by calls for European nations and others to help make up the shortfall.

The US donated $355 million in 2016 and was set to make a similar contribution this year; the first installment was to have sent this month.

But after a highly critical Jan. 2 tweet from Trump on aid to the Palestinians, the State Department opted to wait for a formal policy decision before sending any of the $125 million.

Trump’s tweet expressed frustration over the lack of progress in his attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and he pointed the finger at the Palestinians. “We pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect,” he said. “But with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Although Trump referred to all US assistance to the Palestinians, the contribution to the refugee agency would be the first to be affected.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed Trump, telling his Cabinet that he agreed with the critique of the agency. He said the agency only perpetuates problems and should cease operating in the region. Netanyahu and other Israelis accuse it of contributing to Palestinian terrorism and allowing its facilities to be used by terrorists. They have also complained that some of its staff are biased against Israel.

Netanyahu suggested transferring the agency’s budget to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which aids refugee matters everywhere in the world. It was not immediately clear whether any withheld US assistance would be shifted.

Netanyahu’s position, coupled with Haley’s firm opposition to the funding, led Tillerson, with the support of Mattis, to propose the $60 million compromise, the officials said.

Trump, whose Jerusalem decision last year upset the Palestinians along with his plan to move the US Embassy to the holy city, was said by one official to have expressed cautious backing of the compromise.

Palestinian Refugees’ Unique Status and Legacy

The Palestinians have a unique definition for their status as refugees.The number of Palestinian refugees has been vastly inflated by the fact that refugee status is passed on to succeeding generations and is unaffected by citizenship from other countries, in contrast to the definition of refugee status for every other refugee population in the world.

For instance, the vast majority of the “refugees” in Jordan, more than two million, are citizens of Jordan who identify as Palestinian.

Israel has argued for years that the UN and the Palestinians are working to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem and oppose any attempt to seek a solution.

Furthermore, the Palestinians’ status as refugees ensures an endless flow of international aid and has other financial ramifications.

so-called Palestinian refugee receives quadruple the amount of aid that a Syrian, Iraqi or African refugee receives from the United Nations.

A study released in September shows that in 2016 UNRWA, which provides assistance solely to Palestinians, spent an average of $246 for each of the 5.3 million Palestinians it defines as refugees, while the UNHCR spent only a quarter of that, $58 per refugee, on non-Palestinians.

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