U.S. Mulls End To Remaining Aid Programs For Palestinians

Funds to Palestinian security agencies that cooperate with Israel are also in jeopardy.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Colum Lynch
A boy holding a Palestinian  flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border between Gaza and and Israel on May 14. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy holding a Palestinian flag looks at clashes with Israeli security forces near the border between Gaza and and Israel on May 14. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Agency for International Development could shutter all of its operations in the West Bank and Gaza by early 2019, a move that aid workers and former officials warn could have devastating humanitarian consequences and risk derailing the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan.

The drawdown, described to Foreign Policy by four U.S. officials and congressional sources, follows the Trump administration’s broad crackdown on support and assistance to Palestinians as top officials led by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner try to pressure the Palestinian Authority to strike a peace accord with Israel.

It follows a law that President Donald Trump signed in October—the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act of 2018—which allows U.S. courts to use Palestinians’ frozen assets to pay financial reparations to families of U.S. citizens killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks. The law would require the Palestinians submit to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in exchange for receiving U.S. financial assistance—which it is unlikely to do. This calls into the question the fate of USAID’s presence in the region and vital aid programs that have become a lifeline for many in Gaza.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported the administration was dispatching Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt, the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to Congress to convince members to amend the law and keep some U.S. assistance flowing, lest it derail prospects for the peace plan.

A USAID spokesman said no staffing decisions had been made yet on the organization’s mission based in the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and no one has been laid off. “We will assess future U.S. assistance in the West Bank and Gaza in a global context, with a focus on areas in which we can best advance U.S. national interests and ensure value to the U.S. taxpayer,” a State Department spokeswoman said when asked by FP.

David Harden, former USAID mission director for the West Bank and Gaza described the idea of shuttering the aide program as “extremely short-sighted.” He said it would undercut what remaining influence the United States has in the region as a neutral supplier of humanitarian assistance. Supporters of the administration’s pro-Israel policy counter that the United States has little if no influence in the West Bank or Gaza to begin with.

The USAID mission in the West Bank and Gaza has roughly 130 employees, and in years past oversaw an annual budget of roughly $400 million, according to current and former officials.

Scott R. Anderson, a former U.S. legal advisor now at the Brookings Institution, said the new law could also upend U.S. security assistance of the Palestinian Authority, which is designed to enhance Palestinian security cooperation with the Israelis. Anderson said the law could potentially face challenges to its constitutionality in the courts, by constraining the White House’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

The concern is that the Palestinians would be forced to refuse about $60 million in U.S. funding for its security assistance because it would expose the Palestinians to hundreds of millions of dollars in legal judgments in U.S. courts. “It would make it hard to accept [U.S.] assistance,” Anderson said. The Palestinian Authority would “be exposed to an array of lawsuits, the costs of which would outweigh the amount of assistance they receive from the U.S.” The law could also prevent the Palestinians from accepting U.S. humanitarian assistance.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza, meanwhile, is worsening. “Humanitarian aid can’t resolve Gaza’s problems but there’s no doubt that it has kept people’s heads above water,” said Tania Hary, head of the Israeli-based nonprofit organization Gisha, which does advocacy and legal work in the Palestinian territories.

U.S.-funded aid to the West Bank and Gaza has already slowed to a trickle under the Trump administration, which has sought to limit aid to drive the Palestinian Authority to negotiations with Israel. In August, the administration moved to slash all U.S. funding to the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which Trump officials criticize as a deeply flawed institution that perpetuates rather than solves the challenges facing Palestinians in the region. Internal emails first obtained by FP showed Kushner was pushing to do away with the agency altogether.

Humanitarian workers based in the region say rolling back the USAID mission could have devastating consequences for the West Bank, and Gaza’s population of nearly 2 million, who are heavily reliant on humanitarian aid and U.S. and international funding for education programs and other social services.

Hilary DuBose, the country representative for Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza for Catholic Relief Services, said in the wake of violent protests on Gaza’s border with Israel, “the death toll and number of injuries continues to rise each week, putting more and more strain on an already overstretched health system.” She also warned of growing risks of an epidemic, as 97 percent of Gaza’s water is undrinkable. Gaza has also contended with an unemployment rate of 54.9 percent—and 71.1 percent among young people—in the latter half of 2018, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

“There is no donor waiting in the wings to fill the gap that the [United States] has left behind, and I don’t see one stepping in anytime soon,” said DuBose.

Hary, of the Israeli group Gisha, said funding cuts to UNRWA and to USAID threaten the fragile safety net that has prevented Gaza from falling over the edge. “It’s folly, not to mention morally bereft, to imagine that you can experiment with the breaking point of 2 million people.”

The U.S. cut in aid would also jeopardize vital programs in the health sector, sewage and infrastructure, according to Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s former deputy foreign minister. He said Trump’s policies, including his decisions to halt funding for Palestinian refugees and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, have fed resentment toward the United States.

The U.S. and Israel have countered that Hamas could do more help alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinian people if they stopped diverting their resources to military programs. In New York, the United States is pressing other governments to support a U.N. General Assembly resolution that “condemns the use of resources by Hamas in Gaza to construct military infrastructure, including tunnels to infiltrate Israel and equipment to launch rockets into civilian areas, when such resources could be used to address he critical needs of the civilian population.”

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

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