The Trump administration announced Friday that it has cut nearly all the money the U.S. had planned to spend on aid projects for the Palestinians this year —including money to address a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Administration officials repeatedly state that the U.S. has given more development aid money to help the Palestinian people over the years than has any other country.
But on Friday, the State Department said money to be spent by the end of this fiscal year — which ends Sept. 30 — will now be redirected to “high-priority projects elsewhere.” That’s a cut of more than $200 million.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly opposed the cuts at first, according to Foreign Policy, but earlier this month Trump adviser Jared Kushner “pushed back, maintaining that ending the assistance outright could strengthen his negotiating hand when he introduces his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.”
The president began the year with a series of tweets claiming that Palestinians receive “HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year” from the United States and yet show no “appreciation or respect.” He then went on to question why they should still get “massive future payments.”
Aid organizations have said that without the money, they could have to cut food subsidies for poor Palestinians, aid for some medical treatments and some youth programs, among other things. It’s unclear whether planned water projects will be affected.
The cut comes at a low point in U.S.-Palestinian relations. President Trump froze the aid money early this year, after the Palestinian Authority protested his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinians seek part of the city for the capital of a future state.
U.S. officials say they have not communicated with Palestinian political leaders since, and an official in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said it had not been notified of the decision before it was announced.
Palestinian officials accuse the U.S. of cutting money for needy Palestinians in order to coerce their leaders into accepting U.S. proposals for a peace deal with Israel.
“The U.S. administration is demonstrating the use of cheap blackmail as a political tool,” Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said late Friday. “The Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.”
Aaron David Miller, Middle East Program Director at Wilson Center, said in a tweet earlier today that this is the “First Administration in history to provide unqualified support to Government of Israel while waging political/economic war on Palestinians.”
In its decision to rescind the planned funds, U.S. officials blamed the militant group Hamas in Gaza for degrading humanitarian conditions there — and said the international community faced “challenges” providing assistance in Gaza.
But the cuts could reduce U.S. influence. “The U.S. cedes political space to Hamas,” said Dave Harden, a former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development mission for the West Bank and Gaza, which administers the money.
This money that was cut Friday was not intended to go to the Palestinian Authority government — but rather to aid projects directly serving Palestinian citizens.
“It is the Palestinian people, virtual prisoners in an increasingly volatile conflict, who will most directly suffer the consequences of this callous and ill-advised attempt to respond to Israel’s security concerns,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
For the last several months, aid projects were in limbo. Officials had withheld the money and said they were reviewing whether it was benefiting the U.S. taxpayer and U.S. national interests.
With the cash held up, some American-funded aid organizations said they laid off staff in Gaza and discontinued programs like subsidies for surgeries and food vouchers to needy families. This month, current and former officials told NPR the funds were likely to be cut for good.
Officials say there are exceptions. The U.S. did recently release aid money to Palestinian security forces to assist Israel in preventing attacks in the West Bank. And officials say they are still reviewing whether to release money to East Jerusalem hospitals, which have connections to U.S. Christian groups.
The U.S. has also withheld $300 million for the U.N. agency that feeds and schools Palestinian refugees, arguing the agency helped perpetuate the refugee problem.
Friday’s announcement of the cuts in funding comes a week after the State Department said that it was pulling back $230 million dollars in planned aid for programs in Syria. To make up for it, officials said they managed to round up $300 million in commitments from coalition partners, including Saudi Arabia.
Reporter Sasha Ingber contributed to this article.