The State Department has denied a report that the US missed a deadline to transfer $125 million to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
But there are indications of a fierce struggle within the Trump administration about whether to cut funding to the organization that provides health, education and humanitarian services to five million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Asked Tuesday about a report from last Friday that the US had missed the payment, US Undersecretary of State Steven Goldstein said, “there are still deliberations taking place. We have not missed the deadline, and we have not halted funding, and the decision is under review.”
“I wouldn’t anticipate a decision this week,” Goldstein added.
Earlier this week, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told The Electronic intifada that the agency had not been informed one way or the other about any change in US funding.
A State Department official told the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds that it was unknown if funding to UNRWA would continue, but that there had been a “technical” meeting at the White House last Friday to examine all the US aid given to Palestinians, including UNRWA, to see where cuts could be made.
The US is UNRWA’s largest single donor. It contributed $380 million of the overstretched and cash-strapped agency’s $1.1 billion budget in 2015.
A Washington Post column by pro-Israel journalist Josh Rogin this week asserts that the Trump administration “is headed for a showdown over whether to follow through on threats by President Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley to cut off US funding for Palestinian refugees.”
According to Rogin, the White House has decided to hold an as yet unscheduled meeting of top officials to decide whether or not to release the $125 million that Rogin asserts is “on hold.”
Rogin says that he has been told by several administration officials that Haley as been “pushing for a total cut in US funding for UNRWA.”
Top officials reportedly backing Haley’s position include Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner who has been tasked with reviving the so-called peace process.
Rogin also cites “sources close to Haley” telling him the ambassador does “not advocate abolishing UNRWA altogether.”
Eliminating the agency has been long advocated by the pro-Israel far-right, and openly by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the hope of permanently removing the right of return for Palestinian refugees from the international agenda.
Rogin says that some administration officials are warning that cutting funding to UNRWA would have potentially disastrous humanitarian consequences, including on US allies.
“Haley is well-intentioned, but the practical effects of the position she has taken will do harm to the refugees, our ally in Jordan, and will leave the Israelis holding the bag when the s–t hits the fan,” Rogin quotes a State Department official telling him.
Options being considered include a partial scaling back of US funding to UNRWA or asking others, such as Saudi Arabia, to foot the bill, according to Rogin.
Some officials believe cuts in US aid will fail to force countries that have been threatened – including the Palestinians and Pakistan – to bow to the Trump administration’s line. But, according to Rogin, by implementing the cuts, “Trump will be able to claim that money was saved and a campaign promise fulfilled.”
Separately, Norway and the European Union announced an “extraordinary” meeting later this month of a group of donors to the Palestinians which includes representatives from the United States and various international bodies.
The so-called Ad Hoc Liaison Committee has long served as a way for international donors, especially the US, to impose their political demands on the Palestinians under the guise of offering aid.
The ostensible goal of the meeting is to discuss ways to “speed up efforts that can underpin a negotiated two-state solution,” but its timing in the wake of American threats to funding is likely no coincidence.
Palestinian human rights defenders are adding their voices to those warning of the dire humanitarian consequences of major cuts to UNRWA’s resources.
For decades, “UNRWA has faced systematic campaigns aimed at shutting it down and smearing its reputation,” the Gaza-based human rights group Al Mezan said Wednesday.
Al Mezan pointed to the “unprecedented deterioration of the humanitarian situation” in the occupied West Bank and especially Gaza, which has been under a tight Israeli blockade for a decade.
It notes that UNRWA has already been forced to cut services because of shortfalls in its funding amid soaring needs.
But according to Rogin, the Palestinians are to serve as a “major test of Trump’s new approach of using aid to punish foreign governments for bad behavior.”
There could be no clearer – or more cruel – example of the strong taking out their anger and vengeance against some of the most vulnerable people in the world.