US ends final source of aid for Palestinian civilians: Officials

Palestinian school girls embrace as they wait for buses at the Israeli separation barrier inside the Shua'fat Refugee Camp, north of Jerusalem, on Sept 3, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - As part of its policy to end all aid for Palestinian civilians, the United States is blocking millions of dollars to programmes that build relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, according to current and former American officials briefed on the change.

The move to prevent Palestinians - including, in many cases, children - from benefiting from the funds squeezes shut the last remaining channel of American aid to Palestinian civilians.

The money had already been budgeted by Congress for allocation in fiscal year 2017, which ends this month.

In the past, these designated funds went mostly to programmes that organised people-to-people exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis, often for youth. Some went to programmes for Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Advocates had hoped this last US$10 million (S$13.7 million) pot of money would remain available to projects with Palestinians, even as the Trump administration cut all other aid.

But last week, officials from the US Agency for International Development told congressional aides that programmes that benefit Palestinians alongside Israelis would not receive any new money, said Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy established the broader programme managed by USAID.

The agency's officials did not want to cut programmes with Palestinians, but had to accommodate a White House that does not want to send US funds to Palestinians, Rieser said.

As a result, only programmes with Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs will get funding, contrary to the tradition of the funds and intent of Congress.

"Essentially, USAID was faced with the choice of shutting down the programme and losing the funds, or keeping something going," Rieser said. "They decided to support programmes that involve Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs."

Programmes currently on multi-year grants will still get all their funds, Rieser said.

In a statement on Friday, USAID said it is "currently unable to engage Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the administration's recent decision on Palestinian assistance".

The agency said it was "continuing its support for civil society working on these issues within Israel".

The broad push to cut all funding to Palestinian civilians is promoted by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump and the top White House adviser on the Middle East.

Kushner has been working on a peace proposal for the Israelis and Palestinians, and is seeking maximum negotiating leverage over the Palestinians.

He also has criticised the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing to negotiate after Trump declared in December that the United States was recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

"Nobody is entitled to America's foreign aid," Kushner told The New York Times on Thursday.

In late August, the Trump administration announced it was redirecting US$200 million that was set aside last year for bilateral aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Soon afterwards, American officials said they were ending funding to a United Nations aid agency for Palestinians and redirecting US$25 million intended for hospitals in East Jerusalem, which has a mostly Palestinian population.

Until those moves, the United States one of the largest national donors of aid to Palestinians.

Before last week, advocates of aid to Palestinians had said they hoped US officials would not bar Palestinians from access to the US$10 million in funds from what is known as the Conflict Management and Mitigation Programme. The programme receives a total of US$26 million annually from Congress and was established in 2004 by Leahy. (The other US$16 million is spent elsewhere in the world.)

The change means members of Congress will revisit the annual practice of setting aside US$10 million, mostly for Israeli-Palestinian exchange programmes, Rieser said.

"Senator Leahy regards the decision to cut off funding for the West Bank and Gaza as a sign that this White House has failed at diplomacy," he said. "This is not a partisan view. It's the view of those who recognise that you don't advance the cause of peace by cutting off programmes that are designed to promote tolerance, understanding and address shared problems."

The money from the United States is almost a quarter of the annual global funding for peace and reconciliation activities between Israelis and Palestinians, said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of nongovernmental organisations that seeks US support for such activities. The grants are bid out for as much as US$1.2 million over three years, and are by far the largest of their kind, he said.

Cutting off programmes that benefit Palestinians "would deeply damage the integrity of the programme," Braunold said. "If they don't change their track, I can't perceive a situation where Congress would support this."

Braunold stressed that any groups that receive grants this year for Israeli programmes were still doing worthwhile work.

The change also means Palestinian nongovernmental groups would not be given funds, he said, adding that a handful of such groups had won bids before.

The American aid agency previously said the funds aims are "to support Israelis and Palestinians working on issues of common concern".

Last year, the funding proposals sought to support "cross-border projects that bring together Israelis and Palestinians and activities that bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians are strongly encouraged".

The aid mission and embassy have given out 126 grants since 2004.

The programme activities vary widely, such as bringing Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers together and organising soccer games for Palestinian and Israeli girls.

One group, Kids4Peace, won a US$800,000 grant for a project that "connects more than 1,000 youth and parents from East and West Jerusalem and neighboring West Bank communities in cross-border programmes", according to the fact sheet. Those include workshops, home visits, community service projects and religious holiday events.

"We're concerned that changes in aid would hurt the people most essential to any peace agreement by jeopardising the momentum of organisations like ours," said Josh Thomas, the group's executive director.

The group sees "huge demand from Palestinian and Israeli families".

The project's grant runs out in 2019, and under the current decision the group would need to cut Palestinians from activities to be eligible for future grants.

"The bottom line is if you're a Palestinian, you don't have access to any of this," said David Harden, a former American aid agency official who managed projects for 11 years in the West Bank and Gaza and who had been briefed on the decision. He called the decision vindictive.

"Once you cut out East Jerusalem hospitals and cut out girls playing soccer with each other, it's the end of hope."

"Reconciliation activities should be beyond politics," he added, saying that the programmes had been very effective.

R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and former senior US diplomat who worked on Palestinian issues, said that "cutting off all American economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people is mean-spirited and beneath a great nations like ours".

"Republican and Democratic presidents have tried for decades to position the US as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

"President Trump has abdicated that critical role and squandered our influence and credibility with the Arab world on this critical issue. This is diplomatic malpractice of the highest order."

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