Trump’s aid cuts to the Middle East draw sharp criticism from US Congress

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Trump’s proposed budget “falls short” of achieving the administration’s objectives.
Sunday 17/06/2018
US Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (L) and Diane Black head into a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 7. (AP)
Deep concerns. US Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (L) and Diane Black head into a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 7. (AP)

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump’s cuts in aid to the Middle East came under strong attack from supporters and opponents in the US Congress who say the reductions would destabilise the region and threaten American allies, including Israel.

The Trump administration proposed major across-the-board cuts in foreign aid next year as it tries to get other countries to contribute more money. The administration has also frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in planned aid to the Palestinian territories and Syria.

The policies drew sharp criticism, particularly as Gaza faces a major humanitarian crisis following the administration’s decision to withhold tens of millions of dollars in aid for health clinics, schools and development.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza has deteriorated — dramatically doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s catastrophic,” US Representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, said June 13 at a congressional hearing.

Connolly said that 53% of Gazans live in poverty, 44% are unemployed and the loss of US funds threatens to cut off tens of thousands of residents from food aid and emergency medical care.

Representative Lois Frankel, a Democrat from New York, said at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing that cutting aid to Palestinians could foment violence in Gaza and draw Israel into war.

“If you want to stop the violence from spilling out even further from Gaza, it seems to me we have to participate in Hamas assistance,” Frankel told a US State Department official who was testifying at the hearing. “We give billions of dollars to Israel to keep them secure and yet now you want to take away millions to prevent harm.”

The State Department official defended the US decision to withhold $65 million in aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency while the administration reviews whether to make the payment to the programme.

David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for near eastern affairs, said he understood “the gravity of the suffering in Gaza” but that relief is “an international responsibility.” He blamed the Hamas-led government, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, of using aid money for its military aims.

“It is 11 years of governance by a terrorist organisation that has chosen to use its resources, chosen to use parts of international assistance, in furtherance of its military goal, which is threatening if not aiming for the destruction of Israel,” Satterfield said.

“American generosity has overlooked that time and again since [the second world war],” Connolly replied, noting the United States has given aid to North Korea despite the country’s enormous human-rights violations. “The United States gave humanitarian food assistance so people didn’t starve to death. Do we have a different standard for Gaza because you don’t like Hamas? I don’t like Hamas, either.”

When Connolly asked when the administration would complete its review of the $65 million it decided to withhold in January, Satterfield replied: “We are making an assessment of what US assistance is appropriate for Gaza-West Bank in light of the emphasis on burden-sharing.”

“Well, I’m sure that will bring great comfort to human suffering in Gaza,” Connolly replied sarcastically.

Republicans criticised the Trump administration’s decision in March to withhold $200 million in recovery funds for Syria and its proposal to slash foreign aid 30% in the budget year that begins October 1. The $200 million was to pay for projects such as building roads and restoring power and water to the devastated country but has been put on hold as the US focuses on trying to expel the Islamic State from Syria.

The budget cuts proposed for the 2018-19 fiscal year would sharply affect the Palestinian territories and Syria while leaving intact the approximately $3 billion in aid to Israel and the $95 million to Tunisia, lawmakers said.

“The president is absolutely committed to increasing burden-sharing, both of a financial and a presence-on-the-ground character,” Satterfield said. Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have pledged additional aid, as have Japan and some European countries, Satterfield said. “We continue to engage at the highest levels to elicit support.”

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican chairwoman of the subcommittee, said Trump’s proposed budget “falls short” of achieving the administration’s objectives in the Middle East.

“I’m all for getting partner nations to increase their share of contributions but, in the meantime, we’re losing critical time and we’re certainly not making progress on our Syria objectives if we’re not providing assistance,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

David Cicilline, a Democrat on the subcommittee, criticised the administration for proposing to cut funding to the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, which seeks to stop violence against women and children, prevent marriage of children and empower women financially. “It seems hard to achieve those objectives with deep cuts in efforts that are intended to enhance the rights and well-being of women and girls,” Cicilline said.

“We believe we have the resources required to continue with the active promotion of those goals,” Satterfield replied.

Trump proposed substantial cuts on foreign aid in the budget he submitted to Congress a year ago but Congress restored much of the funding for the 2017-18 budget. Trump’s proposed 2018-19 budget is still under review by Congress, which seems likely to again restore some of the aid cuts.