Catholic aid organizations ask US to restore funds to Palestinian refugees

Catholic aid leaders and others have requested that the White House reconsider its decision to withhold $65 million designated for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Leaders of 21 global aid groups, including Catholic Relief Services and Jesuit Refugee Services/USA, signed a Jan. 24 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other U.S. leaders, expressing concern that cuts in humanitarian aid will have “dire consequences” on emergency food and medical aid in the region.

“We are deeply concerned by the humanitarian consequences of this decision on life-sustaining assistance to children, women and men in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” reads the letter, posted online by the Palestine News Agency.

Giulia McPherson, Interim Executive Director of Jesuit Refugee Services told CNA, “As a UN partner that also serves Palestinian refugees through some of our programming, we felt compelled to join this effort.”

“We know that places like this are strapped for resources, having taken in millions of refugees in recent years due to war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When resources are taken away for a specific population, such as UNRWA, the impacts can be felt throughout the region,” McPherson continued.

The letter said the decision “impacting humanitarian aid to civilians is not based on any assessment of need, but rather designed both to punish Palestinian political leaders and to force political concessions from them.”

“This is…a dangerous and striking departure from U.S. policy on international humanitarian assistance,” it read.

The United States will provide $60 million in 2018 to UN relief efforts for Palestinian refugees. According to State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, the Trump Administration will withhold an additional $65 million for future consideration, until it determines whether UNRWA has made reforms that have not yet been specified.

On Jan. 2, President Trump tweeted “we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don’t even want to negotiate a long overdue … peace treaty with Israel.”

He added: “With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

At a Jan. 16 press conference, Nauert said the decision to withhold aid to refugees was not politically motivated, or related to recent regional controversy of a US decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. She declined to comment on whether withholding the funds was related to the president’s tweets.

The aid organizations contrasted current foreign aid protocols with the approach of the Reagan and Bush administrations. “The Reagan Administration declared that ‘a hungry child knows no politics,’ and, indeed, this sentiment has guided U.S. policy makers for decades,” their letter said.

“This sentiment is, for example, reflected in the international Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, an intergovernmental donor forum and network that the United States helped to establish during the Administration of George W. Bush. That initiative includes best practices that the Bush administration and subsequent administrations have endorsed, including the propositions that ‘humanitarian action should be guided by … the centrality of saving human lives and alleviating suffering wherever it is found,’ and that humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations should be ‘solely on the basis of need, without discrimination between or within affected population,’” the letter continued.

Nauert said that the Administration’s decision might motivate other countries to support Palestine. “The United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA. We would like other countries – in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us – to step forward and actually help with UNRWA.”

Catholic Relief Services, which is overseen by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was also a signatory to the letter.

“Catholic Relief Services has grave concerns about the humanitarian impact these cuts will have on the people UNRWA serves, and CRS does not believe political conditions should be applied to that aid,” CRS Vice President of Government Relations and Advocacy Bill O’Keefe told CNA.

CRS told CNA they will continue to serve the people of Gaza, in response to the Holy Father’s call on Christmas Day, 2017.

“We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Pope said.