NEW YORK - The United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees launched a $500 million funding campaign this week in the aftermath of a decision by the Trump administration to substantially cut the U.S. contribution to the agency this year.

The announcement two weeks ago that Washington has committed $60 million this year instead of its traditional $350 million, shocked and upset Palestinian refugees.

It also left the UN agency, known as UNRWA, scrambling not to disrupt services to the 5 million registered Palestinian refugees it assists in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

"We provide schooling to over 500,000 children in 700 schools around the region," said Peter Mulrean, UNRWA's New York director. "We provide healthcare, 9 million visits in 150 clinics last year. We have 1.7 million Palestine refugees who are food insecure, a million of them in Gaza. These are things that you don't stop from one day to the other."

Palestinians receive food aid at a U.N. warehouse
Palestinians receive food aid at a UN warehouse in the Shati refugee camp, Gaza City, Jan. 14, 2018.

Tensions have been high between the Palestinian Authority and Washington since President Donald Trump announced December 6 that he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there.

The Palestinians pushed for a vote at the UN General Assembly that overwhelmingly condemned the U.S. decision, leading to speculation that the funding cut to UNRWA was political retaliation.

"This is not aimed at punishing anyone," said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson. "The United States government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around."

But last week, the U.S. ambassador to the UN took a tougher line in an interview with VOA.

"They go and take us to the United Nations and are basically very hostile in what they say and what they do," Nikki Haley told VOA. "We are not going to pay to be abused, it doesn't make sense."

In a waiting room in a UNRWA clinic in southern Be
In a waiting room in a UNRWA clinic in southern Beirut, Palestinians Ahmad Said, second from left, and Abed Ghosein, third from left, await treatment. (J. Owens/VOA)

Both officials also said that the administration wants to see UNRWA make some internal reforms before the U.S. considers allocating any future contributions.

"I have not been communicated and I have not received any specific indication at this point from the U.S. administration about specific reform-related questions," said Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of UNRWA. "And I must tell you that I'm absolutely clear in my mind, that the decision that was taken in funding terms was not related to our performance."

Krähenbühl launched the $500 million funding campaign on the same day that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Israel and addressed the Israeli parliament.

In the meantime, UNRWA aims to keep all communications channels open with the Trump administration while it seeks new donors to fund the work it has done for 70 years.

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