US reverses pledge of additional $45m for UNRWA

US State Department pledges $45m in emergency funds for West Bank and Gaza food supplies, but later reneges

The United States will not provide $45m in food aid for Palestinians that it pledged last month as part of the West Bank/Gaza Emergency Appeal led by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the State Department said on Thursday.

The State Department had said on Tuesday that Washington would withhold a separate $65m it had planned to pay the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees, saying UNRWA needed to make some unspecified reforms.

Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied that withholding the $65m was to punish the Palestinians, who criticised Trump’s announcement last month that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

In a 15 December letter to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl, State Department Comptroller Eric Hembree had pledged $45m to the West Bank/Gaza Emergency Appeal.

“The United States plans to make this funding available to UNRWA in early 2018,” according to the letter seen by Reuters on Thursday. “An additional letter and contribution package confirming this contribution will be sent by or before early January 2018.”

The United States had made clear to UNRWA that the $45m was a pledge aimed at helping the agency with “forecasting”, but it was not a guarantee, Nauert told reporters at a regular State Department briefing.

“At this time, we will not be providing that, but that does not mean – I want to make it clear – that does not mean that it will not be provided in the future,” Nauert said.

She repeated the US view that UNRWA needs reforms, saying there are a lot more refugees in the programme than previously, and that “money coming in from other countries needs to increase as well to continue paying for all those refugees”.

“So we’re asking countries to do more,” Nauert said. “Fundamentally, we just don’t believe that we have to be the chief donor to every organisation around the world.”

Despite the decision to backtrack on the food aid pledge, she said: “We are the most generous country on the planet. We continue to be.”

Washington is the largest single contributor to UNRWA’s finances and last year donated more than $364m to fund humanitarian projects to approximately 5.2 million registered Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Trump said in a Twitter post on 2 January that the United States gives the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year, “but get[s] no appreciation or respect”.

The decisions to curb funding are likely to compound the difficulty of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and further undermine Arab faith that the United States can act as an impartial arbitrator.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly because of Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and amid Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian land, among other factors.