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Bahbah: Are US Aid Cuts to the Palestinians a Blackmail Tool?

posted on: Jul 11, 2018

By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

These days we hear frequently about US cuts in aid to the Palestinians – aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to UNRWA (United Nations and Relief Works Agency).  The Trump Administration has effectively reduced aid to UNRWA from an expected $365 million for 2018 to a mere $60-$65 million.  And, in March 2018, the US government also passed a law, The Taylor Force Act, that aims to suspend some $200 million in assistance for the Palestinians over stipends paid by the PA to families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned in fighting with Israel.

Not to be outdone, the Israeli Knesset passed a law this month that withholds $330 million in tax funds, collected on behalf of the PA, over welfare payments to 35,000 families of Palestinians killed and wounded in the conflict with Israel.  Israel claims that those payments amount to encouraging violence against Israel.  The amount to be withheld represents roughly 7 percent of the PA’s $5 billion budget in 2018.

Are Trump and Netanyahu trying to starve the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian refugees served by UNRWA?

The US made its first donation to UNRWA in 1950.  Since that time, the US has become the largest single contributor to the organization.  US contributions in 2017 made up about 30 percent of UNRWA’s operating budget.  UNRWA has been providing vital services (health, education, food, protection, and shelter) to 5.3 million Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

The US aid cuts to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority followed the Palestinians’ push for the adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution, in December 2017, demanding that the US rescind Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  Trump was also infuriated by the Palestinians’ “chutzpah” for their refusal to resume negotiations with both Israel and the United States over the peace proposal being drafted by Jared Kushner and company.

Trump’s new aid policy toward the Palestinians has been – “either you play along, be good boys and cooperate with what the US and Israel dictate or you will be punished and even starved.”

According to a Congressional Research Service Report written by Jim Zanotti and published on July 3, 2014, US aid to the Palestinians has always been conditional on meeting US policy priorities of interest to Congress.  At the time, these were:

  • Preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other militant groups;
  • Fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank that induces Palestinians toward peaceful co-existence with Israel;
  • Promoting a “two-state” solution; and
  • Meeting humanitarian needs.

With the advent of the Trump administration, the goal of promoting a “two-state” solution has been thrown out of the window because Trump is no longer an advocate of a two-state solution but would not oppose it if both Israelis and Palestinians agree to that solution.  With regard to the goal of meeting the “humanitarian” needs of Palestinians that has been abandoned in January of this year when Trump decided to withhold the bulk of the US contribution to UNRWA and reevaluate (withhold or disburse with sets of conditions) $200 million in aid to the PA.

Let us be honest!  No country aids another country out of the goodness of its “heart.”  There are always interests and self-serving motives involved.  If we look at the US assistance to the PA that has not been affected by the cuts, it is the assistance provided to the Palestinian security forces which play a major role in preventing Palestinian attacks against Israel and thus provides Israel with the stability that it needs.  In short, the US is not doing the Palestinians any favors.  Its aid is aimed to help Israel.  Period!

The US and Israel should realize that, if need be, the majority of the Palestinian people will and can survive on a piece of bread, olive oil, za’atar, a tomato, and an onion. 

The Trump administration can withhold all its aid to the Palestinians and the Palestinian people will persevere and survive.  Trump cannot and will not be able to humiliate the Palestinians and make them kneel in obedience just to receive US aid.  As the proud Palestinians would say in the Trumpian vulgar language:  “Take your aid and shove it.”


Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.