Palestinians condemn Trump aid halt threat

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A man at the entrance to the UNRWA West Bank field office complex in East Jerusalem yesterday. Reuters

RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinians condemned as blackmail yesterday US President Donald Trump’s threat to withhold future aid payments over what he called the Palestinians’ unwillingness to talk peace with Israel.

Mr Trump drew praise from a cabinet minister in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government but a warning from a former Israeli peace negotiator of the dangers in cutting off financial assistance to the Palestinians.

On Twitter on Tuesday, Mr Trump said that Washington gives 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 … with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?”

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, said: “We will not be blackmailed.”

Palestinian anger at Mr Trump is already high over his December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a declaration that also generated outrage across the Arab world and concern among Washington’s Western allies.

Commenting on Mr Trump’s tweets, Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “Jerusalem is not for sale, neither for gold nor for silver”.

Mr Abu Rdainah said the Palestinians were not opposed to returning to peace talks that collapsed in 2014, but only on the basis of establishing a state of their own along the lines that existed before Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.

“If the United States is keen about peace and about its interests it must abide by that,” he said.

Israel, which withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, has called the pre-1967 war West Bank boundaries indefensible and has pledged to hold on to all of Jerusalem forever.

A report prepared for the US Congress in December 2016 by the US Congressional Research Service said annual US economic support to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $400 million since fiscal 2008. Much of the money has gone toward US Agency for International Development-administered project assistance and the rest toward budget support for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers limited self-rule in the Palestinian territories under interim peace agreements.

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev, a member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, welcomed Mr Trump’s aid comments, saying on Army Radio: “I am very satisfied … (Mr Trump) is saying the time has come to stop saying flattering words (to the Palestinians).”

But Tzipi Livni, an Israeli opposition politician , said “a responsible and serious (Israeli) government” should quietly tell Mr Trump that it would be in Israel’s interest to prevent a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” and to continue to fund Palestinian security forces cooperating with Israel.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Trump’s UN ambassador disclosed plans to stop funding a UN agency that provides humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. “The president has basically said he doesn’t want to give any additional funding, or stop funding, until the Palestinians agree to come back to the negotiation table,” Ambassador Nikki Haley said when asked about future US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said “UNRWA has not been informed by the United States administration of any changes in US funding to the Agency”.

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