Jerusalem, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Tens of thousands of Palestinians are no longer getting food aid or basic health services from America, U.S.-funded infrastructure projects have been halted, and an innovative peace-building program in Jerusalem is scaling back its activities.
The Trump administration's decision last year to cut more than $200 million in development aid to the Palestinians is forcing NGOs to slash programs and lay off staff as the effects ripple through a community that has spent more than two decades promoting peace in the Middle East.
The U.S. government's development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994 for infrastructure, health, education, governance and humanitarian aid programs, all intended to underpin the eventual creation of an independent state.
Much of that aid is channeled through international NGOs, which were abruptly informed of the cuts last summer and have been scrambling to keep their programs alive.
President Donald Trump says the USAID cuts are aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace talks, but Palestinian officials say the move has further poisoned relations after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital last year. The aid groups, many of which have little or no connection to the Palestinian Authority, say the cuts hurt the most vulnerable Palestinians and those most committed to peace with Israel.
"If you want to maintain the idea of the peace process, you have to maintain the people who would be part of the peace process," said Lana Abu Hijleh, the local director for Global Communities, an international NGO active in the Palestinian territories since 1995.
Before the aid cuts were announced, it provided food aid — branded as a gift from the American people — to more than 180,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza on behalf of the World Food Program. USAID had planned to contribute $19 million a year for the next five years to continue the project but pulled out in August.
Global Communities can now only provide aid to 90,000 people through March, and Abu Hijleh had to lay off around 30 staff, including in Gaza, where unemployment exceeds 50 percent.
"It really hurts, because you're talking about the most basic level of assistance," she said. The average family receives a monthly voucher worth around $130.
Sadeqa Nasser, a woman living in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp, used her voucher to support her disabled husband, their six children and four grandchildren.
She says her sons each bring in less than $5 a day from odd jobs. "They cannot afford to buy food for their families, so I help them out," she said.
Since the aid was cut off, she's been able to qualify for welfare payments from the Palestinian Authority, which itself relies heavily on foreign aid. "Without it we would go hungry," she said.
Funding has also been cut for a five-year, $50 million program run by a coalition of NGOs to provide health services, including clinical breast cancer treatment for some 16,000 women and treatment for some 700 children suffering from chronic diseases.
Infrastructure projects, including desperately needed water treatment facilities in the blockaded Gaza Strip, have also been put on hold.
Anera, which has carried out development projects in the Middle East for more than 50 years, said it was forced to halt five infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza before completion and cancel three more in Gaza that were pending funding approval. It says the projects would have benefited more than 100,000 people.
The NGOs are reaching out to other donors, but USAID is one of the biggest sources of funding for a global aid community overwhelmed by conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Trump administration has also cut off funding for peace-building initiatives involving Palestinians — even residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel considers to be part of its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, to be the capital of their future state.
Kids4Peace, a group founded by Israeli and Palestinian families in Jerusalem in 2002, brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teenagers together for seminars and summer camps where they can share their experiences and learn more about one another.
The group's organizers acknowledge the longstanding criticism of such initiatives — that campfires and singalongs won't bring peace to the Middle East, especially after a decade of diplomatic paralysis and little hope for resuming meaningful negotiations.
But they say that with a $1.5 million USAID grant in 2016 they tripled the number of annual participants to around 70 and revamped programs. USAID takes a hands-on approach, requiring regular audits and demanding concrete accomplishments.
Participants now take part in a Youth Action Program in which they plan and execute projects in their communities. One group is campaigning for Arabic subtitles in Jerusalem cinemas. Another set up a community garden in a tense neighborhood where Jews and Arabs had rarely interacted.
Kids4Peace was a finalist for another $1.5 million grant this year, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of the funding cuts. It will continue to run programs with the help of private donors, but its growth prospects are in doubt.
"We see the trend lines moving in a negative direction, in terms of more hostile attitudes toward the other, less interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, more resistance to peace negotiations," said the Rev. Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace International. "We see that as a need for greater investment rather than less."
Trump also halted aid to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East, but UNRWA was able to narrow the funding gap with aid pledges from other countries.
Palestinian officials say they won't bow to pressure.
"We don't want their money, we don't want anything to do with America," said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "If (Trump) thinks he can put pressure on us through his money, it won't work."
Critics of the policy fear that cutting off aid will further diminish Washington's ability to manage a conflict that remains highly combustible.
"When America vacates the Middle East space, we do so at our own risk and we do it to the benefit of our adversaries," said Dave Harden, a former USAID mission director in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hong Kong, Jan 22 (Xinhua/UNB) -- An earthquake measuring 6.4 magnitude jolted 85km SSW of Bogorawatu, Indonesia on Tuesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
The epicenter, with a depth of 27.01 km, was initially determined to be at 10.4663 degrees south latitude and 119.0309 degrees east longitude.
Moscow, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Two Tanzanian-flagged commercial vessels caught fire in the Black Sea, leaving at least 14 sailors dead, Russian officials said Monday. Five other sailors were missing.
The Federal Agency for the Sea and River Transport said the fire erupted while fuel was being pumped from one tanker to another. The blaze spread from one ship to the other, prompting the crews to jump overboard, according to Russian news agencies.
The news agencies quoted the federal maritime agency as saying the two vessels had 31 crew members combined who are citizens of Turkey and India.
The maritime agency said that salvage teams have saved 12 crewmembers, correcting its earlier report that 14 sailors have been rescued. It said that 11 bodies were taken from the sea, adding that rescuers saw another three dead but failed to recover them. The search for five missing seamen was continuing.
The Russian navy has joined the rescue operation, deploying two of its ships.
The fire erupted while the two vessels, the Maestro and the Candy, were anchored near the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
London, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Brexit Plan B on Monday — and it looks a lot like Plan A.
May launched a mission to resuscitate her rejected European Union divorce deal, setting out plans to get it approved by Parliament after securing changes from the EU to a contentious Irish border measure.
May's opponents expressed incredulity: British lawmakers last week dealt the deal a resounding defeat, and EU leaders insist they won't renegotiate it.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party accused May of being in "deep denial" about her doomed deal.
"This really does feel a bit like 'Groundhog Day,'" he said, referring to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, in which a weatherman is fated to live out the same day over and over again.
Outlining what she plans to do after her EU divorce deal was rejected by Parliament last week, May said that she had heeded lawmakers' concerns over an insurance policy known as the "backstop" that is intended to guarantee there are no customs checks along the border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland after Brexit.
May told the House of Commons that she would be "talking further this week to colleagues ... to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House.
"And I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the EU."
The bloc insists that it won't renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.
"She is wasting time calling for a revision or clarification over the backstop," said German politician Udo Bullmann, head of the socialist group in the European Parliament.
While May stuck doggedly to her deal, she also acknowledged that control over Brexit wasn't entirely in her hands. She noted that lawmakers will be able to amend her plan when it comes to a vote in the House of Commons on Jan. 29, exactly two months before Britain is due to leave the EU.
Groups of "soft Brexit"-backing lawmakers — who want to keep close economic ties to the bloc — are planning to use amendments to try to rule out a "no-deal" Brexit and make May ease her insistence that leaving the EU means quitting its single market and customs union.
Britain and the EU sealed a divorce deal in November after months of tense negotiations. But the agreement has been rejected by both sides of Britain's divide over Europe. Brexit-backing lawmakers say it will leave the U.K. tethered to the bloc's rules and unable to forge an independent trade policy. Pro-Europeans argue it is inferior to the frictionless economic relationship Britain currently enjoys as an EU member.
After her deal was thrown out last week by a crushing 432-202 vote in Parliament, May said she would consult with lawmakers from all parties to find a new way forward.
But Corbyn called the cross-party meetings a "stunt," and other opposition leaders said the prime minister didn't seem to be listening.
On Monday, May rejected calls from pro-EU lawmakers to delay Britain's departure from the bloc or to hold a second referendum on whether to leave.
In a nod to opposition parties' concerns, she promised to consult lawmakers, trade unionists, business groups and civil society organizations "to try to find the broadest possible consensus" on future ties between Britain and the EU, and said the government wouldn't water down protections for the environment and workers' rights after Brexit.
May also said the government had decided to waive a 65 pound ($84) fee for EU citizens in Britain who want to stay permanently after Brexit.
Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the EU Parliament Brexit steering group, welcomed news that the fee was being dropped for 3 million EU nationals, saying it had been a "key demand" for the EU legislature.
May's immediate goal is to win over pro-Brexit Conservatives and her party's Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. Both groups say they won't back the deal unless the border backstop is removed.
The backstop proposes to keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to avoid checks on the Irish border. It is meant as a temporary measure that would last until a permanent solution is found. But pro-Brexit U.K. lawmakers fear Britain could become trapped in it, indefinitely bound by EU trade rules.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks with EU colleagues Monday by suggesting the problem could be solved by setting a five-year time limit on the backstop.
The idea got a cool reception. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that "putting a time-limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it's not a backstop at all."
Britain's political impasse over Brexit is fueling concerns that the country may crash out of the EU on March 29 with no agreement in place to cushion the shock. That could see tariffs imposed on goods moving between Britain and the EU, sparking logjams at ports and shortages of essential supplies.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said Monday was "another bleak day for business."
"Parliament remains in deadlock while the slope to a cliff edge steepens," she said.
Several groups of lawmakers are trying to use parliamentary rules and amendments to May's plan to block the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
One of those legislators, Labour's Yvette Cooper, said May was shirking her responsibility to the country by refusing to take "no deal" off the table.
"I think she knows that she should rule out 'no deal' in the national interest because it would be so damaging," Cooper told the BBC. "She's refusing to do so, and I think she's hoping that Parliament will do this for her. That is not leadership."
Toronto, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — More than 100 academics and former diplomats are calling on China to release two Canadians who have been detained in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a top Chinese tech executive in Canada.
The letter by a wide array of China experts from around the world is addressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It says the arrests of the two Canadians sends a worrisome signal to those who work in policy and research in China.
China detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor on Dec. 10 in an apparent attempt to pressure Canada to release Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested Dec. 1 at the request of U.S. authorities.
Meng is the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei and the daughter of its founder. The U.S. wants her extradited to face charges that she committed fraud by misleading banks about Huawei's business dealings in Iran.
The letter, released Monday, notes Kovrig is a former diplomat who was working as an expert on Asia for the International Crisis Group think tank. It notes that Spavor devoted his time to building relationships between North Korea and China, Canada and United States.
It praises Kovrig and Spavor as bridge-builders between China and the world and said their arrests make writers "more cautious" about travelling to China.
"Meetings and exchanges are the foundation of serious research and diplomacy around the world, including for Chinese scholars and diplomats," the letter says. "Kovrig and Spavor's detentions send a message that this kind of constructive work is unwelcome and even risky in China."
The letter said the arrests will lead to "less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground. Both China and the rest of the world will be worse off as a result."
More than 20 diplomats from seven countries and more than 100 scholars and academics from 19 countries signed.
Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, signed the letter and noted it comes as Canada is working to rally international support for the case.
"It will be noticed in Beijing and I hope that it will make clear for them that the arrests of Kovrig and Spavor are not only a China-Canada problem but it's also having an impact on the image of and reputation of China," Saint-Jacques said. "It's an impressive list."
The signatories include former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong. Two former U.S. ambassadors to China, Gary Locke and Winston Lord, also signed.
David Mulroney, another former Canadian ambassador to China, said the letter is significant because it shows the international breadth of support for the two men.
"This isn't simply a Canada-China dispute," Mulroney said. "A lot of serious people, including many who have spent years working in China, are worried about how it is closing itself off, and punishing those who seek to understand and interpret it for others."
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he encourages friends and allies around the world to point out that all countries should stand up for the rule of law.