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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Trump's decision to halt UNRWA funding wrecks hopes for peace

Aid cuts to Palestinian refugee agency follow a string of damaging moves
A Palestinian refugee carries at the United Nations food distribution centre in Al Shateaa refugee camp in Gaza. Mohammed Saber / EPA

When the administration of US President Donald Trump cut aid to the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees by more than $200 million, there were fears it could cripple its vital work. But that was simply a portent of what was to come.

Seven days later, it has yanked the rug from under the feet of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) altogether by pulling the plug on any funding, a move which is not only morally reprehensible but deeply damaging to any hopes of a solution in the Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA provides a lifeline to about five million Palestinians with education, healthcare and basic services.

The Trump administration blamed the organisation’s “irredeemably flawed” finances but this is merely a facade for an entirely political decision. Like the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem in December and the declaration it was "Israel's capital", this follows a string of moves in which Mr Trump has clearly aligned his interests with those of Israel. America has sought to use its aid as a bargaining chip to blackmail them into accepting its long-awaited peace deal. But having nailed its colours to the mast in favour of Israel, the US can no longer claim to be an honest broker.

As a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said, the decision was “a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people”.

The timing of this decision is particularly disgraceful as tens of thousands of Palestinian children returned to UN-run schools last week, with each day of teaching made more precious by funding cuts. With 711 schools for 526,000 students, the UNRWA does not just operate in the occupied territories but also in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. It is the birthright of every child to have an education, something Mr Trump is now denying them.

Israel, meanwhile, has made no gestures in service of peace, approving plans last month to build more than 1,000 new illegal settlement homes in the West Bank.

As the most generous donor, the US has traditionally contributed more than $360m a year to UNRWA. The financial void its withdrawal will create will need to be filled by others. In April, the UAE and Saudi Arabia pledged $50m each while Germany vowed to increase its contribution on Friday.

Yet funding from elsewhere will not exculpate the US for its ruinous decision to further imperil some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

At every turn the Trump administration has sided with Israel, with palpable consequences for Palestinian lives. On the day of the US embassy relocation, Israel responded to protestors with live ammunition, killing 58, according to Gaza health ministry and wounding 2,700. In denying transformative programmes to millions of Palestinians, Friday’s decision to halt funding to the UNRWA is both heartless and devastating to any hopes for peace.