The Trump administration said on Friday that it would cut funding to a UN organisation dedicated to assisting Palestinian refugees.
The US state department said it was “no longer willing to shoulder the very disproportionate share of the burden” in supporting the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
The decision was the second time in a week that the administration has cut aid to the region, squeezing economic support for the Palestinians while it crafts an Arab-Israeli peace proposal that will include both political and economic elements.
The US committed $60m to the UNRWA in January and was the top donor to the agency last year, when it committed more than $364m — about a third of its budget.
The Trump administration spent months reviewing whether to press ahead with an additional $65m in funds, before announcing its decision late on Friday.
The UN called on other countries to help fill the funding gap in the wake of the US announcement. “We regret the United States’ decision to provide no further funding to UNRWA,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, adding the agency provided essential services to Palestine refugees in great need and contributed to regional stability.
President Donald Trump has vowed to deliver the “ ultimate deal” — peace in the Middle East — by reconciling decades’ of enmity between Israel and the Palestinians, and appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead the effort.
His administration has since lost the trust of Palestinian officials, however, some of whom fear that the US is seeking to coerce them into accepting a one-sided deal that favours Israel.
In particular, Palestinians were appalled when Mr Trump declared in December that the US would recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, potentially undermining American support for any Palestinian claims to a capital in the same city. Mr Kushner opened the new US embassy in May, provoking extensive protests in Palestinian-run Gaza.
Mr Trump has also said it was up to the two parties to determine if they wanted to agree to a two-state solution, backing away from previous US policy that was committed to such an arrangement.
Argument over US funding to the UNRWA in part reflects controversy over the status of the 5.3m people it assesses as refugees, and the extent to which that designation implies a right of return to Israeli territory or a claim to Palestinian statehood.
Gregg Roman, director of the Middle East Forum, a US group that submitted a proposal for the dismantling of the UNRWA to the US state department earlier this month, said the agency’s beneficiaries should be seen not as refugees but as “needy people deserving of assistance”.
Husam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s delegation to the US, said Washington was reneging on its international commitment and responsibility.
“It’s not up to the US administration to define the status of Palestinian refugees,” he said. “By endorsing the most extreme Israeli narrative on all issues including the rights of more than 5m Palestinian refugees, the US administration has lost its status as peacemaker and is damaging not only an already volatile situation but the prospects for future peace in the Middle East.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a Jewish community group that wants a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, said the Trump administration’s decision could harm millions of people.
“This decision will ratchet up the risk of greater destabilisation and conflict across the Middle East, undermining the security of Israel and countries throughout the region,” Mr Ben-Ami said. It could particularly hurt Jordan, a key US ally in the region, by reducing funding for millions of Palestinian refugees who live there, he said.
Senior administration officials say they are pressing ahead with their plans to deliver a peace proposal, although they have given no date for its release. Mr Kushner’s team has yet to finalise an economic package that will form part of the peace plan.
Friday’s decision to stop funding the UNRWA follows another last week to halt $200m of aid intended to help Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
The UNRWA was founded in December 1949 after the Arab-Israeli conflict of the previous year. The agency recently had its mandate extended by the UN general assembly until June 2020 “in the absence of a solution to the Palestine refugee program”.
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