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The false logic of slashing funds for Palestinians

The cuts will mainly affect the innocent and peaceful, while money to so-called 'martyrs' will keep flowing
Palestinian refugee children seen inside their family's house in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. (Flash90/Wissam Nassar)
Palestinian refugee children seen inside their family's house in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018. (Flash90/Wissam Nassar)

As presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner mulls the future of his fake so-called peace plan, the United States has taken steps to starve the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank of crucial funds that sustain the lives of millions of people and bolster important peace-building programs as well as protecting the lives of Israelis.

The aim appears to be to pile pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the Kushner plan, which is likely to offer the Palestinians far less than the truly independent state they want and deserve.

But the result will be to cause suffering to innocent Palestinians, starve crucial humanitarian and civil society programs of funds, weaken moderate pro-peace forces in the Palestinian community and strengthen rejectionists. It also puts at risk the vital security cooperation between Palestinian forces and theIsrael Defense Forces which Israeli commanders say saves lives in both communities.

The United States has taken two very dangerous steps in recent months: first it has cut its contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which takes care of millions of Palestinian refugees throughout the entire Middle East by 80 percent. It has frozen $300 million of its projected $360 million budget in retaliation for the Palestinian rejection of the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

UNRWA educates half a million children in over 700 schools across the Middle East, 270,00 of them in Gaza. The agency says its doctors see 11 million patients in nearly 150 primary health clinics annually. It also assists more than 40,000 refugees with disabilities and runs recreational centers for 200,000 refugee youth and children. The agency employs over 30,000 teaching staff, doctors, nurses, social workers, sanitation laborers and engineers.

The head of UNWRA said recently the agency could start running out of money as soon as this month, threatening the delivery of emergency food aid to needy Palestinians in Gaza and also in Syria. A delay in the late-summer opening of schools run by the agency, which serve more than a half-million Palestinian students was also in the cards. Without these schools, these young Palestinians in Gaza would be in Hamas schools or on the streets.

The muddy, illogical thinking behind these moves was exposed last week when it was reported by the Washington Post that Kushner was putting his plan on hold due to lack of Palestinian buy-in and focusing instead on mobilizing a big dose of development aid for the Gaza Strip. Why cut funds in the first place if this was the intention?

The Trump administration has also slashed contributions to the Palestinians through USAID. According to UN officials, some $200 million that was appropriated by Congress as aid for the Palestinians for this year has not been delivered and there is no budget at all for next year.

This money goes to such causes as helping to pay the medical debts of Palestinians in Israeli or other foreign hospitals, sanitation, economic development in the public and private sectors, infrastructure development, education, governance, health and essential humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip.

The USAID money is also crucial to the survival of dozens of NGOs that work on the grassroots level to support values of non-violence and peace-seeking. Now, all of these programs are threatened.

Separate from this USAID money, which in 2016 equaled $290 million, the US also gives a large sum every year to support law and order, including training and supplying equipment to the PA security forces and the police force, firefighter training, rehabilitating courtrooms and training judges as well as lawyers. These programs enable the daily security cooperation between the Palestinian security forces and the Israeli army and enhances security on both sides of the Green Line.

Some of these cuts are the result of the Taylor Force Act passed by Congress last year to freeze American economic aid benefitting the Palestinian Authority until it stops paying stipends funneled through the so-called Palestinian Authority Martyr’s Fund to the families of Palestinians killed, injured or imprisoned for involvement in attacking Israelis and to the families of innocent bystanders killed during violent events. A Washington Post analysis showed that last year these payments totaled $343 million.

Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed similar legislation under which Israel will withhold part of the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority from the earnings of Palestinian day laborers, merchants who live in Palestinian territory but do business in Israel, and from customs on Palestinian goods coming into the country through Israel.

The idea that Palestinians would be rewarded for committing terrorist acts is of course disgusting and unjustifiable. It should be halted. But this legislation is unlikely to fulfill its goal. The money to the so-called “martyrs” will continue to flow. Other programs that build democracy and civil society will be hurt instead. This will stoke more bitterness and hatred and pave the way for more violence and more casualties on both sides. And it should be remembered that the money Israel is withholding belongs to the Palestinians, not to Israel.

This strategy underscores the basic dishonesty that lies behind the Kushner peace sham. Rather than acting as an honest broker in the conflict, as Republican and Democratic administrations have done for decades, the United States is now acting like a character from “The Godfather,” confronting the Palestinians with “an offer they can’t refuse.”

Of course, they will refuse it – and the conflict will go on until the parties decide to approach one another in good faith with the aim of reaching a just peace settlement based on a two-state solution. The United States can and should play a role but it needs to begin by treating both sides with respect.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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