In the course of a few months, the United States suddenly pulled hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. What does that mean for urban Palestinians?
When the Trump administration suddenly cut nearly half a billion dollars in critical aid funding to Palestine within a month, the refrain in Palestine was “wait and see.” Will the money return? Will other countries step in to fill the void? Two months after those announcements, neither of these things have happened.
U.S. financial aid has been important to helping address chronic infrastructure crises in Palestine, among them, the safe provision of clean water. For the last five years, USAID provided funding to the Palestinian Community Infrastructure Development (PCID) program. The program is aimed at building large-scale infrastructure to support clean water, and with the cuts to USAID’s Palestine support, nothing like it will thrive into the future. In the city of Gaza, water access and sanitation problems had already reached crisis point, but the humanitarian crisis is worsening.
“We say it can’t get worse,” Rania Al-Hilou, a Gaza-based spokesperson for Anera, a nonprofit that serves Palestinian refugees, told me. “When you live there and experience daily suffering, you confirm that it gets worse.”
On August 24, the Trump administration cut $200 million in direct support to the Palestinian Authority, the government in the West Bank. A week later, it cut nearly $300 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) which supports Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the Middle East.
Next was $200 million in cuts from USAID, which funds nonprofits and NGO’s doing humanitarian work in the region. Along the way some smaller cuts were made, too—$25 million to hospitals in East Jerusalem that primarily serve Palestinians, for example.
The administration’s justification according to one report: Squeezing the purse might force Palestinians to the bargaining table with Israel. And of course it would be the “ultimate deal” by Trump if he could solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The administration has also claimed that some aid programs are disorganized and sometimes corrupt.
But the strategy doesn’t seem to be playing out. In Palestine, animosity towards the United States and its peace negotiations has only grown, making the political situation for leaders there even less conducive to accepting any peace agreement.
Al-Hilou said that health and sanitation problems in Gaza were so awful, that she couldn’t even bring her family to the beach—the Mediterranean waters off the shore of Gaza are dangerously polluted with raw sewage. And it’s not just in the sea. A recent study out of the RAND corporation, a nonprofit think tank that provides information to the U.S. Air Force, found that water pollution and waterborne diseases were one of the leading causes of child mortality in Gaza, and that those figures are growing. “Now 90 percent of water in Gaza is unqualified for human consumption,” Al Hilou said.
That figure is based on World Health Organization standards for water potability. According to the RAND report, many people in Gaza take their water from old or unmarked wells that require inaccessible treatment to work. Large scale water developments, like a proposed water treatment center in Northern Gaza, have stalled due to insufficient funds—U.S. aid has been important to helping address crises like this in the region.
Operating pumps and water treatment sites takes electricity—something that is in short supply in Gaza. Last week, Israel halted fuel supplies from reaching Gaza. Already, folks in the strip can expect roughly four hours of electricity a day, according to Al-Hilou—not nearly enough to maintain operations for complicated water treatment plants or pumps.
Palestinian leaders are left trying to provide for their cities, including Gaza, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, without electricity, supplies, or power, with dangerously polluted water and the constant threat of war—and now with fewer funds.
International aid to Palestine has been falling for nearly 10 years from a peak in 2009. At that time, the international community was funneling nearly $2 billion into Palestine, with half coming from the United States. Since then, U.S. contributions have slowly fallen, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, to roughly $300 million last year. This year, it’ll be closer to $70 million. Next year, zero.
It’s not just Gaza, and it’s not just physical infrastructure either. U.S. funding cuts also serve to erode the social infrastructure that holds many parts of Palestinian territories together. For example, the poorest people in the Palestinian West Bank are supported by a government-funded safety net, according to Raja Khalidi, a senior economist at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute. Roughly 110,000 families throughout the West Bank receive $400 every three months from the government there.
“They’re screened and vetted. It buys meat for a few weeks every few months,” said Khalidi, of the safety net. He told me that the program costs about $130 million to support, and that U.S. aid accounted for nearly $30 million of that money. Without the aid, the future of the program at its current size and scope is imperiled, throwing thousands into deeper poverty that will be difficult to escape from.
Schools, too, are on the chopping block. One of UNRWA’s primary functions is to provide education for Palestinians, not just in Palestinian territories, but in refugee camps scattered throughout Jordan and Lebanon as well. When the Trump administration suddenly cut $65 million from UNRWA at the beginning of the summer, the program nearly closed its schools. Last-minute aid increases from European and Gulf State countries saved them. But making up the larger $300 million gap won’t be so easy.
“UNRWA expresses deep regret and disappointment at the US’ announcement that it will no longer provide funding to the Agency after decades of staunch political and financial support. This decision is all the more surprising given that UNRWA and the United States renewed a funding agreement in December 2017 which had acknowledged the successful, dedicated and professional management of the Agency,” UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness said in a statement in August.
It’s unclear yet if UNRWA’s other funders will be able to make up the difference. If they don’t, hundreds of schools in Gaza, the West Bank and surrounding countries that serve Palestinian refugees will have to close. Without them, the large youth population will have even less opportunity. Already in Gaza, youth unemployment hovers at an astounding 70 percent, according to the World Bank.
As the humanitarian and urban infrastructure crises in Palestinian lands grow, the Trump administration continues to stand by its decision and attempt to move towards a grand bargain. But by cutting aid, many say that the United States is squandering its good will and bargaining power. That may be the goal of the funding cuts. “The U.S. administration will be very largely despised and condemned for this sort of cheap politics,” Khalidi said. “Somebody called it weaponizing of aid, so that’s the sum of it.”