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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Sweden warns against US cutting UN aid to Palestinians

The Swedish ambassador said he did not rule out raising the issue at the Security Council on January 25

Palestinian protesters wave their national flag near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis as they demonstrate against calls for the closure of UNRWA. Said Khatib / AFP
Palestinian protesters wave their national flag near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis as they demonstrate against calls for the closure of UNRWA. Said Khatib / AFP

Sweden, a big donor country that has recognised Palestine as a state, warned on Tuesday that any US decision to withdraw funds to the UN agency for Palestinians would be destabilising for the Middle East.

Sweden's UN ambassador Olof Skoog said he had raised his concerns with US ambassador Nikki Haley following reports that the US administration had withheld US$125 million (Dh459m) in funds due on January 1 for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians.

"My concern is that as we talk about regional stability, withdrawing funding for UNRWA would be very negative, both in terms of humanitarian needs of over five million people but also of course it would be destabilising for the region," Mr Skoog told reporters at UN headquarters.

The Swedish ambassador said he did not rule out raising the issue at the UN Security Council, which is scheduled to hold its regular meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on January 25.

US president Donald Trump earlier this month threatened to cut US aid to the Palestinians, saying on Twitter that Washington gets "no appreciation or respect" from the Palestinians.

"We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect," Mr Trump tweeted on January 2.

"With the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"

In Washington, a senior state department official said on Monday that "contrary to reports that we have halted funding to UNRWA, the decision is under review".

"There are still deliberations taking place, and we have missed no deadline," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Read more: Palestinians reject Trump threat to halt US aid over Jerusalem crisis

Sweden was the first EU country to recognise Palestine as a state in 2014 and is among the top 10 donors to UNRWA along with Britain, Germany, the EU, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth called the US move "vindictive" and a "bullying tactic", as he urged other governments to step in and fill the gap if the US decides to definitely cut funding.

UNRWA provides services including schools and health clinics to 5.3 million refugees in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

"It is vindictive for the US government to deprive the UN of money to feed and educate Palestinian children in order to blackmail the Palestinian Authority into rejoining Trump administration-led peace negotiations," Mr Roth said in a statement.

US vice president Mike Pence will travel to the Middle East next week, with stops scheduled in Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

On Tuesday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia said that his country's position on the Palestinian issue remains the same.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that King Salman spoke to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and reiterated that Saudi Arabia believes "in the Palestinians' right to have their own state with Jerusalem as their capital".

Mr Abbas, in turn, said that he appreciated the kingdom's continuous support for the Palestinian people.

Mr Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital has infuriated the Arab world and drawn sharp criticism from America's western allies. Jerusalem is considered a holy city by Muslims, Christians and Jews.