US aid cuts to the Palestinian Authority would primarily benefit radical Hamas

The United States could be pushed to the sidelines, leaving a void for other parties, such as Russia, to fill.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a UN food distribution centre in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 28.     (AFP)
Bargaining chip. Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, on January 28. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump recently warned countries opposed to America’s policies that his country would no longer give them financial aid. That, he suggested, would go only to “friends.”

Many experts say Trump’s remarks were primarily meant for the Palestinian Authority (PA). Palestinians and their leaders are outraged at the US president’s grand peace plans for the Middle East, on terms that are extraordinarily favourable to the Israelis. In December, Trump announced that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem, which it regarded as Israel’s capital.

Trump seemingly believes he has all the cards. The United States is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority. It gives about $400 million a year to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, of which $363 million goes directly to US Agency for International Development projects; $36 million is for the PA’s security forces.

Trump wants to use America’s financial assistance to force the Palestinians to the negotiating table with Israel but, after his announcement on Jerusalem, the Palestinians say they will not work with this US administration on peace plans and will talk to Russia and the European Union instead.

What if Trump did cut funding for the Palestinians in half? It would hurt the PA in the West Bank and the effects would be felt even more deeply by Palestinians in Gaza, an area controlled by Hamas.

This brings us back to the question of the $36 million given to PA security forces. Part of the reason the PA gets this money is for its forces to work with their Israeli counterparts to lower the security threat emanating from the West Bank.

Unsurprisingly then, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not particularly enthusiastic that PA security forces might no longer be able to help Israel keep an eye on the West Bank. Security would worsen for Israeli citizens. If Israel established more of a security presence in the West Bank, it would further undermine its world image. If Trump decides to reduce funding for UNRWA projects but keeps the security assistance intact, it’s hard to see Palestinians agreeing to that.

The real winner of Trump’s meddling could be Hamas. Cutting funding to the PA would reduce its effectiveness and importance in the eyes of Palestinians, prompting them to turn to Hamas, especially in the West Bank. Reducing the numbers and scope of the PA security forces could embolden Hamas to attack Israel.

All in all, it’s difficult to see anything positive coming out of Trump’s funding threats. As has often been said, this US president appears to look at the Middle East as just another real estate deal rather than a complex political issue. If anything, Trump’s blundering rhetoric could illustrate the perils of being too clever by half.

Instead of giving him the authority and the victory he so desperately wants, the United States could be pushed to the sidelines, leaving a void for other parties, such as Russia, to fill.