The Trump administration is to end US funding to coexistence programmes that bring Israelis and Palestinians together, it has emerged.
The US currently provides $10m for the projects – one quarter of the money invested globally in civil society peace and reconciliation work between Israelis and Palestinians.
The American move is part of a wider policy by the White House to end all aid for Palestinian civilians. The US is currently attempting to pressurise the Palestinian Authority into negotiations on its much-hyped, yet frequently delayed, peace plan.
People-to-people programmes are often targeted at children and young people and aim to inculcate peacebuilding values and raise levels of trust between young Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, a major report authored by Ned Lazarus, an international academic expert in conflict resolution, provided robust evaluations demonstrating that coexistence work builds strong constituencies for peace.
Some of the American funding, which is provided by the United States Agency for International Development, is used to support “shared society” projects which work with Israeli Jews and Arabs. This money will be unaffected by the president’s policy, which is driven by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In an interview with the New York Times last week, Mr Kushner, who oversees the administration’s work on the conflict, said: “Nobody is entitled to America’s foreign aid.”
It is the third major cut to US aid to the Palestinians in recent weeks. In late August, $200m of direct aid to projects in the West Bank and Gaza was slashed; a move that was swiftly followed by the US announcement that it was ending its support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which specifically provides funding for Palestinians. The US has also frozen $25m in funding for six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. It had been hoped, however, that the administration might spare coexistence work.
Mr Kushner has claimed that the American approach has increased chances of the US successfully brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Trump’s Middle East peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, tweeted: “I continue to believe in the importance of building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly kids. But both Palestinian and Israeli kids will lose, and these programs will be meaningless, if the PA continues to condemn a plan they haven’t seen & refuses to engage on it.”
USAID, which is reported to have opposed the cut, said in a statement that it was “currently unable to engage Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as a result of the administration’s recent decision on Palestinian assistance”.
LFI has been campaigning for a number of years to increase UK support for coexistence programmes. In response, last year, the UK government announced it would invest £3m over three years in people-to-people work. We have also been leading the campaign in the UK to support the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
The fund, based on the International Fund for Ireland which invested in civil society projects bringing nationalists and republicans together, would invest $200m annually in coexistence work. It is the brainchild of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella group representing NGOs working in Israel and Palestine.
LFI chair Joan Ryan said in response to the American announcement: “I am appalled at the Trump administration’s decision to axe funding for coexistence projects. This mean-spirited and counterproductive step will hamper vital work to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis and thus provide a platform for a future peace agreement.”
Ms Ryan went on to call upon the UK government to urgently consider ways of working with Britain’s European partners to fill the financial gap left.
ALLMEP said the Trump administration’s decision confirmed “the increasingly clear message that the US has no interest in the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza”. “ALLMEP not only regrets the US decision to stop funding cross-border programmes,” it suggested, “but will continue to strongly urge the US administration to reverse this decision”.
Aaron David Miller, the former US Middle East peace negotiator, called the cut “cruel, stupid and counterproductive”.
An aide to Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who helped build the USAID programme, said he “regards the decision to cut off funding for the West Bank and Gaza as a sign that this White House has failed at diplomacy. This is not a partisan view. It’s the view of those who recognise that you don’t advance the cause of peace by cutting off programs that are designed to promote tolerance, understanding and address shared problems.”
Father Josh Thomas, director of Kids4Peace that works with Israeli and Palestinian children in cross-border programmes, said: “We’re concerned that changes in aid would hurt the people most essential to any peace agreement by jeopardising the momentum of organisations like ours.”
Mr Lazarus’ research found that coexistence work creates peacebuilders and constituencies for peace. For example, 17.5 percent of participants in a programme run by the NGO Seeds of Peace went on to dedicate their careers to peacebuilding work.
Coexistence programmes also significantly improve Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other. Ninety percent of participants in a project run by the Near East Foundation said that they trusted the other community more after being in the programme. Seventy-seven percent wanted to keep actively working together. A people-to-people programme led by the Parents Circle Families Forum found 80 per cent of participants were more willing to work for peace and 71 per cent felt more trust and empathy towards the other community.