U.S. Withholds Millions of Dollars in Promised Palestinian Food Aid

The U.N. relief agency has been left with millions in unpaid bills.

A Palestinian child carries UNRWA food donations outside a U.N. food distribution center in Gaza City on Jan. 15, 2018. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian child carries UNRWA food donations outside a U.N. food distribution center in Gaza City on Jan. 15, 2018. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

In mid-December, the U.S. State Department assured the United Nations it would contribute $45 million to purchase emergency food rations and other critical supplies for 1 million needy Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The check, Washington promised, would be formally approved in the first week of January.

So the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, went ahead and bought millions of dollars worth of rice, lentils, flour, and other vital staples. But the United States has yet to cut a check, leaving the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in limbo, according to diplomatic sources.

The agency is now confronted with a massive unpaid bill at a time when it is facing huge cuts from the Trump administration for its education and health care programs and uncertainty over further U.S. giving.

The U.S. pledge was made just days before Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump and Haley have since threatened to cut off humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians unless the Palestinian Authority agrees to participate in U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel.

The United States, Trump complained on Twitter, pays the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars each year and gets “no appreciation or respect.… [W]ith the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

For now, the Trump administration has yet to inform the U.N. whether it will abide by its promise to pay for the food aid or whether its commitment will be subject to a new review in the wake of Trump and Haley’s demands that the Palestinians pledge peace talks in exchange for humanitarian assistance. The State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

UNRWA was created nearly 70 years ago, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to assist more than 700,000 displaced Palestinians. Today, it provides food, education, and other services for more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, including some 30,000 schoolteachers who serve more than half a million children.

Last year, Haley assured UNRWA that the United States would maintain current levels of funding for its operations. But she reversed course after the Palestinians introduced resolutions at the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly that denounced Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem and called on the United States to rescind the decision.

The Palestinian aid issue has divided the Trump administration’s top national security team, with Jared Kushner — the president’s son-in-law and top Middle East advisor — and Haley favoring a total cutoff of humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees until the Palestinian Authority agrees to participate in U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and representatives of the U.S. intelligence community have pressed to maintain funding for Palestinian refugees. In an effort to bridge the gap, Tillerson proposed during a luncheon last week with Trump splitting the difference and giving the U.N. $60 million, just under half of the $125 million the United States was due to pay UNRWA on Jan. 1. The money, which is primarily earmarked for salaries for teachers and health workers, cannot be used to cover the $45 million food bill.

For the first time ever, the United States has also insisted that the money can be spent only to support UNRWA programs in the West Bank and Gaza. None of the money can be used to pay for programs in Lebanon and Syria.

In contrast to Trump and Haley, who directly linked aid cuts to political talks, State Department officials have insisted that the decision to reduce funding is about pushing UNRWA to enact management and financial reforms.

“We would like to see some reforms be made,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday. “This is not aimed at punishing anyone.”

But she declined to say whether the United States has given UNRWA a list of specific changes or reforms it needs to undertake to unlock the rest of the U.S. funding.

Nauert said other countries should shoulder more of the costs for UNRWA. “We would like other countries — in fact, other countries that criticize the United States … to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more,” she said.

The move has sparked an outcry from some in the assistance community. Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called the move “politically motivated” and warned it would have “devastating consequences for vulnerable Palestinian refugees,” including hundreds of thousands of children.

The decision, which has divided Israeli officials, was welcomed by Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon.

“UNRWA has proven time and again to be an agency that misuses the humanitarian aid of the international community and instead supports anti-Israel propaganda, perpetuates the plight of Palestinian refugees and encourages hate,” Danon said in a statement Tuesday. “It is time for this absurdity to end.”

In a Wednesday statement, UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl noted that every U.S. government since the Harry Truman administration has supported the refugee agency. Last year, the United States contributed $350 million to UNRWA, far more than any other country.

The reduced U.S. contribution “threatens one of the most successful and innovative human development endeavors in the Middle East,” he wrote. “At stake is the access of 525,000 boys and girls in 700 UNRWA schools, and their future.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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