US aid cut to Palestinians hits NGOs hard

Palestinian aid staff decry US cut of $200m in economic assistance, months after also cutting contribution to UNRWA.

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    Palestinians slammed the US decision, describing it as a form of political blackmail [Abed al Hashlamoun/EPA]
    Palestinians slammed the US decision, describing it as a form of political blackmail [Abed al Hashlamoun/EPA]

    For Nermin Saydam, a 35-year-old Palestinian NGO worker, the United States' decision to cut $200m of economic aid to the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip is devastating.

    "I never expected this to happen to me," the mother of two, who works as a project manager with the Gaza Envision 2020 USAID programme, said on Saturday.

    For many NGO workers, the announcement on Friday that President Donald Trump had ordered the State Department to "redirect" the funding to unspecified "high-priority projects elsewhere" means no more work nor income.

    According to Saydam, Gaza Envision 2020 is expected to close down by the end of August as one of several US-funded aid and development programmes that will be affected by the cut in US aid.

    As a result, Saydam, who took out a large loan to buy a flat a few months before she signed a five-year contract with the project, faces being thousands of dollars in debt.

    "Now that I have no more income, I'm facing a serious catastrophe," she added, explaining that she will no longer be able to pay her monthly instalments of $550 to the bank.  

    The move comes months after the US, which had been the largest donor to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known as UNRWA, slashed its annual $360m contribution by more than 80 percent to $60m earlier this year.

    It also follows Trump's decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital last December. The move sparked global anger and undercut long-standing underpinnings of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks where the city's status was yet to be determined.

    Palestinians have rejected calls from the Trump administration to return to the negotiating table, arguing that Washington gave up its status as a neutral mediator.

    Like Saydam, Ruba Mohamed, 29, who was also employed by Gaza Envision 2020 as a field worker earlier this year, has been left in disbelief.

    "I built high hopes and dreams for myself and for Gaza through this project," says Mohamed, whose five-year contract with Gaza Envision 2020 USAID programme was put on hold when funds did not come through in May.

    "I wanted to work and help myself and my people, especially the young graduates who cannot find employment," she added, saying that the project aimed at helping create opportunities for people in Gaza.

    Along with 100 other employees in the project, she hoped that by August her work would resume, but the latest move has killed these prospects for good.

    "This decision is a huge shock and disappointment for us," said Mohamed. "There's no way we will be getting back to work now," she added.

    The US, which had been the largest donor to UNRWA, slashed its annual $360m contribution by more than 80 percent to $60m earlier this year [Reuters]

    'Political blackmail'

    Palestinian officials and analysts critised the US move, describing it as a form of political coercion and blackmail.

    "This is flagrant declaration that the real aim of US aid is to interfere in the internal affairs of other peoples and affect their national rights," Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said in a statement on Saturday.

    Erekat said the US decision to cut aid "is a sign that [Washington] had abandoned its international obligations" adding that "the Palestinian people reject any conditional aid".

    Accusing Trump of using "cheap blackmail as a political tool," Hanan Ashrawi, a top PLO official, said in a statement late on Friday: "The US administration has already demonstrated meanness of spirit in its collusion with the Israeli occupation."

    "Now it is exercising economic meanness by punishing the Palestinian victims of this occupation," she added, vowing that Palestinians would not be intimidated by the US move.

    In a similar statement, Hossam Zomlot, head of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) delegation to the US, said the move was confirmation that the Trump administration had adopted Israeli's agenda on the peace process.

    "The decision along with the cuts to UNRWA aid earlier this year underscore the Trump administration's abandoning of the two-state solution and its full adoption of the agenda of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.

    "The use of humanitarian and development aid as a tool of political blackmail will not work," he added.

    Commenting on the move, Omar Shaaban, a Palestinian economic expert told Al Jazeera, that while the move will have limited direct impact on the PLO, it will have a huge effect on development and aid projects and specifically employees working in that sector.

    The UN agency for Palestinian refugees announced in July that it will cut more than 250 jobs in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip after the US slashed its funding.

    Mohsen Abu Ramadan, another economic expert from Gaza told Al Jazeera that the decision attempts to punish the PLO for not agreeing to the "deal of the century", referring to the long-mulled peace plan which Trump and his team are preparing to roll out to end the decades-long conflict.

    "This move is part of [a] series of decisions that have [the] aim to recognise Israeli settlements and limit funds to Palestinians.

    "It [the decision] shows that the US government wishes to weaken the PLO and support the Netanyahu government's approach to the peace process."


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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