Backlash feared if Palestinian aid cut

JERUSALEM -- The U.S.' threat to cut aid to the Palestinians to force them into a peace deal may have dire humanitarian consequences that could backfire on Israel, Israeli security officials and analysts warned Wednesday, while Palestinians slammed it as blackmail.

The U.S. pays "the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect," Trump tweeted Tuesday evening. "With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make these massive future payments to them."

Earlier in the day Trump's envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested the United States will cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency that assists Palestinian refugees, until the Palestinian leadership returns to the negotiating table. The United States is the agency's biggest donor and gave it more than $360 million last year, 40 percent of the organization's budget.

Palestinian officials reacted furiously to what they interpreted as an attempt by the United States to force them to give up their claims to Jerusalem in return for continued financial aid.

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"We will not be blackmailed," said Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO's executive committee.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last month that the United States had disqualified itself from a role brokering a peace process by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and saying he would move the U.S. Embassy there. The move was taken by Palestinian officials as a clear indication of U.S. bias toward Israel and a rejection of Palestinian claims to the city, even though Trump said at the time that it should not be read as a position on the city's final status.

"Cutting funding would not bring anything good to the situation," said an Israeli security official speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. "Doing this would end up making the Palestinian leadership even weaker, then there really would be no one to talk to or rely upon."

Abbas' Palestinian Authority coordinates with Israel on security, but the already weak leader has been further undermined by Trump's Jerusalem decision, with nothing to show for decades of negotiations.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency runs schools and educational programs that Israeli defense officials see as an important counterbalance to Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for the past decade, while the organization also provides essential primary health care and other services for Palestinians.

"Traditionally the Israeli defense establishment has resisted pressure by Israeli hawks who want to shut down [the agency's] funding," said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. "They say, if it's not [the agency], then education will be provided by Hamas."

Chris Gunness, the relief agency's spokesman, said the agency had not been notified of any changes in U.S. funding. The organization's work "is described as indispensable to the dignity of Palestine refugees and the stability of the region," he said.

The U.N. agency runs 700 schools for Palestinians across the region, nearly 150 primary health clinics and employs over 30,000 teaching staff, doctors, nurses, social workers, sanitation laborers and engineers.

"We still very much want to have a peace process. Nothing changes with that. The Palestinians now have to show they want to come to the table," Haley said Tuesday in the U.N. Security Council. "As of now, they're not coming to the table, but they ask for aid. We're not giving the aid. We're going to make sure that they come to the table."

However, Trump's tweet, which also referred to his Jerusalem decision, may have the opposite effect and only cause a stronger backlash, Zalzberg said.

"It's being perceived as deeply offensive," he said. "It's been taken to say, 'We will pay you to make a concession on Jerusalem.'"

The U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem prompted weeks of protests in Arab and Muslim countries around the world and numerous so-called days of rage in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank. At least 12 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli security forces, including two militants in an Israeli airstrike that came in response to rockets fired from Gaza at civilian areas in southern Israel.

Since the announcement, rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has reached levels not seen since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli military said two rockets were fired at Israeli territory on Wednesday.

Information for this article was contributed by Sufian Taha of The Washington Post.


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