Condemnation greets US cut to Palestinian refugee aid
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Condemnation greets US cut to Palestinian refugee aid

Washington: The Trump administration's decision to end funding to a United Nations agency that provides assistance to millions of Palestinian refugees has been denounced broadly by international officials, former American diplomats and Palestinians who are reeling from the elimination of a decades-long policy of support.

The State Department announced the funding cut on Friday, after it had already been confirmed by a former senior official at the US Agency for International Development who had spoken to journalists.

"The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation," Heather Nauert, the chief State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

White House Adviser Jared Kushner, son-in-law to President Donald Trump.

White House Adviser Jared Kushner, son-in-law to President Donald Trump.Credit:AP

The move was pushed by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and top adviser on the Middle East, as part of a plan to compel Palestinian politicians to drop demands for most of the refugees to return to what they call their homeland.

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Trump's own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had argued against the drastic funding cut at a meeting this month. But Kushner prevailed, said David Harden, who was briefed on the plans and oversaw projects in the Palestinian territories for more than a decade until leaving USAID in April.

"What we're seeing right now is a capricious move that has a very high risk of unsettling the region," Harden said, noting that the relief agency supported about 5 million refugees.

Girls sit inside a classroom at an UNRWA school during the first day of a new school year in Gaza City.

Girls sit inside a classroom at an UNRWA school during the first day of a new school year in Gaza City.Credit:AP

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said the cuts could destabilise refugee camps not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also in Jordan and Lebanon.

"If you deprive people of their education, their health — their future — this is extremely serious and dangerous," she said. "Who is going to step in? If you want to hand them over to the religious schools, to Hamas, then you have to live with the consequences."

UN Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, currently provides aid mostly in the form of education, healthcare, food security and other essentials, to some 800,000 Palestinians registered as refugees in the West Bank and 1.3 million people in the Gaza Strip, as well as 534,000 in Syria, 464,000 in Lebanon and 2 million in Jordan.

Israeli officials did not comment on the cuts, although they have repeatedly expressed the view that the agency is a problem.

Israel's government has accused the agency of continually expanding the population of refugees — and perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — because it grants refugee status to the descendants of those displaced in the 1948 war that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.Credit:AP

The administration will also call for a reduction in the number of Palestinians officially recognised as refugees, from the more than 5 million who are counted today to the few hundred thousand alive when the agency was created seven decades ago, the official said.

The pullback is part of the administration's efforts to recalculate US foreign aid spending. It is also a response, in the words of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to continued Palestinian hostility toward America, which has intensified following US policy changes that Palestinians deem pro-Israeli.

Each year, the State Department transfers money by the end of September to the UN agency.

Since 2009, the annual contribution from the United States has ranged between $US233 million ($324 million) and nearly $US400 million — about a quarter of the agency's budget. The United States is by far the biggest donor; other large donors include European and Middle Eastern nations.

In January, the State Department released $US65 million for the agency and announced it was withholding another $US60 million that had already been allocated in a budget process for 2018. The decision withdraws that amount and withholds any further money.

New York Times, Washington Post