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WASHINGTON: The United States held back US$65 million meant for the United Nations relief agency for Palestinians on Tuesday (Jan 16), two weeks after President Donald Trump threatened future payments.
State Department officials insisted the decision was not taken to pressure Palestinian leaders, but because the US wants other countries to help fund a reformed UNRWA.
But the call came after a behind-the-scenes tussle between hawks who want to cut all aid to Palestinians and officials concerned about the humanitarian and diplomatic fallout.
The State Department said US$60 million of what had been a planned US$125 million package would go through to keep the agency running, but the rest will be withheld for now.
"This is not aimed at punishing anyone," spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.
"The United States government, and the Trump administration, believe that there should be more so-called burden-sharing to go around," she said.
"We would like other countries, in fact other countries that criticise the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians ... to step forward."
The State Department's position raised skepticism in the light of a tweet sent by Trump on Jan 2, at the time when the US$125 million contribution had been due to be paid.
"We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect," Trump wrote.
"They don't even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel," he protested, adding: "Why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
Following Trump's outburst, it was reported that his ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had been pushing for a complete end to US aid to UNRWA.
But voluntary payments from the US are the biggest single source of support for the 68-year-old body, and other US officials opposed an immediate and total suspension.
Officials said Tuesday's compromise would allow UNRWA schools and clinics in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in Gaza and in neighboring Arab countries to remain open for now.
"There is a need to undertake a fundamental re-examination of UNRWA, both in the way it operates and the way it is funded," one official said on condition of anonymity.
But, even as US officials said the decision was not political and not intended to use the fate of refugees as a lever, Israel welcomed the delay as a victory for their arguments.
Israel's UN envoy Danny Danon said the agency misuses aid and "supports anti-Israel propaganda, perpetuates the plight of Palestinian refugees and encourages hate."
He accused UNRWA's leaders of allowing "terror tunnels" to be dug under schools and teaching Palestinian children to deny the existence of the state of Israel.
"It is time for this absurdity to end and for humanitarian funds to be directed toward their intended purpose - the welfare of refugees," he declared.
The Palestinians also saw the US decision as political.
A statement issued by Hanan Ashrawi of the executive council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation accused Washington of seeking to dismantle UNRWA at Israel's behest.
She accused the US of "targeting the most vulnerable segment of the Palestinian people and depriving the refugees of the right to education, health, shelter and a dignified life.
"It is also creating conditions that will generate further instability throughout the region and will demonstrate that it has no compunction in targeting the innocent," she warned.
UNRWA has provided health care, emergency aid and schooling to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as Gaza and neighboring Arab countries, since 1950.
The United States has long been its biggest donor, with large voluntary payments topping up the budget that other UN member states provide for the frontline agency.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had not been informed of Washington's decision, but was "very concerned" by reports that it was in the works.
"I strongly hope that in the end, it will be possible for the United States to maintain the funding of UNRWA," he said. "UNRWA is not a Palestinian institution, but a UN institution."