U.S. Freezes More Than Half Of Aid To U.N. Agency For Palestinian Refugees

The State Department is withholding $65 million it planned to send to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, calling for reforms and for other nations to step up their support — especially those that criticize the Trump administration's positions regarding Palestinians and Israel.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East had stood to receive $125 million in U.S. funding. Instead, the State Department will send $60 million, money that State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Tuesday is meant "to sustain schools and health services to ensure that teachers and also health care providers can be paid their salaries."

Nauert said the remaining $65 million is "not being canceled. It's just being held for future consideration."

The funding freeze comes weeks after the U.S. was soundly rejected in its attempts to block a nonbinding resolution in the U.N. that called for countries not to move their embassies to Jerusalem — as President Trump pledged to do in early December.

The U.N. vote to approve the resolution was 128-9, prompting U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley to say, "The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in the General Assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation."

As the State Department's decision on funding for Palestinian refugees became public, Nauert fielded questions about whether the U.S. was punishing Palestinians for bringing the U.N. resolution on Jerusalem to a vote.

"The United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA," Nauert said. "We would like other countries — in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us — to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more."

The UNRWA operates 700 schools, serving more than 500,000 students. Its commissioner-general, Pierre Krähenbühl says that given the long-standing relationship between the agency and the U.S., "this reduced contribution threatens one of the most successful human development endeavors" in the Middle East.

In a series of tweets, Krähenbühl asked the international community for help, citing the need for emergency food aid and regional security and the dangers of radicalization.

NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem:

"Palestinian delegates say cutting funding for refugees would not bring a lasting and comprehensive peace between the countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has praised the move saying it is good that the U.S. is challenging UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

"U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had reportedly called for a complete cutoff in U.S. money, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis fear that ending all assistance would exacerbate instability in the region."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.