In the past few years, USAID humanitarian funding around the world has been under attack from the Trump Administration. This means that countless projects from schools and fresh water to training of security forces have been drawn down all over the world. In addition to direct aid through funding by USAID and the wider State Department, this draw down of contributions has included funding to UN refugee programs and the World Food Program (WFP). In addition to contributing to a troubling trend of isolationism this trend has resulted in specific policy decisions that directly hurt US interest abroad by cutting foreign assistance.
The Trump administration’s overall downgrading of the importance of foreign aid has resulted in a drastic cut in aid available to Palestinian authorities. Specifically, 2018 saw a cut of over a half-billion dollars to the Palestinian authorities in order to attempt to pressure the Palestinians in peace talks in the region. In addition to failing in this regard, Palestinian authorities severed diplomatic ties with the United States after the decision was made to transfer embassy functions to Jerusalem. The largest impact of this decision has been to stop the development of schools and other USAID projects that might otherwise contribute to stability in the Palestinian territories.
In addition to the drawback of aid to coerce the Palestinian Authority to negotiate favorably for President Trump, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act was signed into law in October and has indirectly led to the cessation of US aid to the Palestinian Authority. The Act aims to increase the tools available to the US government in the fight against state sponsored terrorism abroad. The Act was signed into law in October and allows foreign states which are recipients of US development assistance to be held liable in US courts for terror activities that harm US citizens. While denying that they were responsible for any terror activities that might cause liability, the Palestinian Authority wrote a letter to the US State Department requesting that all aid deliveries to it be halted for fear of this litigation. Though the intention of the law was to try to de-incentivize terror funding by foreign governments, the word of the law was not meant to create a break in US aid funding.
Since the Palestinian Authority requested a stop in US aid funding, all aid to Palestine has ceased and will not resume until the law is amended or repealed. Security assistance has also halted as US security contractors have pulled out of the area ahead of funding cuts. Deliveries of vital vehicles and equipment provided by the US to Palestinian forces have been halted, putting the stability of the region at risk. The State Department has said it will still help facilitate security cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli forces, but the lack of material aid is a significant blow. This security assistance has been called critical to the safety and security of the West Bank and Gaza, and any destabilization of the situation there can only be harmful to all parties involved, especially the residents of Palestinian areas. In addition to ending material security aid to the Palestinians, this Act eliminates the role of the US Security Coordinator, a a three-star general position who helped coordinate security activities between Palestinian and Israeli Forces. How the US will continue to facilitate this security relationship in the future without this position is yet to be seen.
The Israeli government has always recognized the importance of US aid funding in the Palestinian territories. The aid provided by the US consists of humanitarian and security aid, and the cessation of either has the possibility of contributing to unrest, which the Israeli government, probably the IDF, will be shouldered with. In addition, a breakdown in the relationship between the US government and the Palestinian Authority represents a threat to the success of the peace deal that the Trump administration has been teasing for so long. This plan that has yet to be announced has been a constant talking point for the administration, and the unintended consequences of this Act could put it in jeopardy.
The theory of the purpose of aid can be generally split into two categories. One is altruistic and the other is strategic. Through either of these lenses, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act fails. From an altruistic perspective, this Act ties legal liability to aid funding that aims to improve health and well-being for countless states. The flaw in this logic lies in the overlap of states that need this development aid the most and those which could be most closely tied with conflict and potential terror activities. If the Palestinian example is predictive of the future impact of this Act, then it is reasonable to assume that conflict-ridden countries which produce the most miserable conditions for their inhabitants (and thus would benefit the most from development assistance) could refuse aid to avoid legal liability in US courts. If these countries around the globe decide to follow the path of the Palestinian Authority, the lives of those affected by the worst conflict and man-made disaster could be unreachable by aid. In addition to sacrificing the well-being and livelihoods of these people, this does not serve US interests abroad.
From a strategic perspective, it does not help the US to find itself suddenly unengaged in aid activities in the world’s most conflict ridden places. US presence in these places strengthens american soft power and allows the US bargaining chip in negotiations. In addition, an abdication of the role of aid provider by the US opens the door for foreign aid from other nations; and while laudable for picking up the slack, this creates opportunity for US adversaries to fill the role of provider and gain influence abroad.
As the impact of this Act is felt throughout the US foreign affairs apparatus, it is yet to be seen of the Act will be amended or repealed before other states follow the lead of the Palestinian Authority. It also remains to be seen how this will impact the continuing situation in the Palestinian territories. If the flow of US aid to the Palestinian territories is not renewed, the US stands to lose key strategic influence in the issue, the Israeli government will need to continue shouldering the burden of the Palestinian humanitarian issue, and the Palestinian people will continue to wait for the schools and infrastructure projects promised to them by the US to be finished.