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All USAID assistance to West Bank and Gaza has ceased, official says

US official tells Reuters that Palestinian Authority is denied USAID funds because of Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act
USAID is main agency administering US foreign assistance in occupied Palestinian territories (AFP)

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has ceased all assistance to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, a US official said.

"At the request of the Palestinian Authority, we have wound down certain projects and programs funded with assistance under the authorities specified in ATCA in the West Bank and Gaza", a US official told Reuters on Friday, referring to a decision  linked to a 31 January deadline set by new US legislation under which foreign aid recipients would be more exposed to anti-terrorism lawsuits.

"All USAID assistance in the West Bank and Gaza has ceased," the official added.

The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) empowers Americans to sue foreign aid recipients in US courts over alleged complicity in "acts of war".

President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said on Friday the aid was cut at the request of the Palestinian Authority.

"This aid was cut (not just suspended) at the PA’s request because they didn’t want to be subject to US courts which would require them to pay US citizens killed by Palestinian terrorists when the PA was found guilty," he tweeted.

The Palestinian Authority will refuse all US government aid for fear of lawsuits over alleged support for terrorism, throwing into doubt the future of security coordination and projects already underway.

Senior official Saeb Erekat said on Tuesday that Palestinians had demanded all funding stop at the end of January for fear they would expose themselves to costly lawsuits under the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which is about to come into force.

"The government sent an official letter to the US administration requesting it stop all aid to the Palestinian Authority, including assistance to the Palestinian security services," Erekat told AFP.

The deadline also sees the end of about $60m in US aid for the Palestinian security forces, whose cooperation with Israeli forces helps maintain relative quiet in the West Bank.

It remains unclear how long the cessation will last.

The US official said no steps were currently being taken to close the USAID mission in the Palestinian territories, and no decision had been made about future staffing at the USAID mission in the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

USAID is the main agency administering US foreign assistance in the Palestinian territories. According to its website, the agency spent $268m on public projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinian private sector debt repayment in 2017, but there were significant cuts to all new funding through the end of June 2018.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: "The suspension of aid to our people, which included critical sectors such as health and education, will have a negative impact on all, create a negative atmosphere, and increase instability."

Greenblatt called Rudeineh's statement disingenuous.

"Palestinians are too smart to continue to live as victims and recipients of foreign aid. Until a political solution is found (maybe it will be our peace plan?), the PA must focus on helping Palestinians lead better lives," he tweeted.

In the Hamas-ruled enclave of Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan condemned the cuts, deploring what he called "politicised money".

Previous cuts

The announcement comes after humanitarian officials in the West Bank and Gaza said they were already facing a cutback from donors worldwide.

Last year, Washington cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians, which included funding to humanitarian groups supported by USAID.

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The US cuts were widely seen as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leadership to resume peace talks with Israel and to engage with the Trump administration ahead of its long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

As a result, dozens of NGO employees have been laid off, programmes shut down and infrastructure projects halted.

In Gaza, Mohammad Ashour said he once earned $600 a month providing psychological support to people with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.

The project was run by the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution. Ashour told Reuters he lost his job last summer because the programme was funded with the help of USAID money.

"I have no clue how am I going to pursue my life," said Ashour, from Bureij refugee camp.

"I have no job and I am in debt; maybe tomorrow the police will come and take me to jail. An educated man ends in jail, I am wrecked."

In August, Washington announced an end to all US funding for the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees. The agency received $364m from the United States in 2017.

In January, the World Food Programme cut food aid to about 190,000 Palestinians amid a shortage of funds.

Diplomatic sources told Reuters that Palestinian, US and Israeli officials have tried to find ways to keep the money flowing to Abbas's security forces.

"We will find a solution to these things. I won't get into details," Israeli security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on Thursday.