U.S. Aid Agency Is Preparing To Lay Off Most Local Staff For Palestinian Projects

Apr 17, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 9:56 am

Under orders from the Trump administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development is preparing to lay off most of its Palestinian aid workers in its West Bank and Gaza mission, according to U.S. government communications reviewed by NPR.

It's the latest step toward shrinking a decades-long U.S. aid mission to build the capacity for a future Palestinian state. In response to NPR's request for comment, a USAID official emailed a statement saying that the agency has "begun to take steps to reduce our staffing footprint." He did not want his name used.

The decision to dismiss the aid workers raises questions about how the Trump administration can implement the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan it vows to soon unveil — with an emphasis on major investments in the Palestinian economy, potentially funded by Gulf Arab states.

"It's a huge mistake," said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who served during the Obama administration and said he was aware of USAID's plans to lay off staffers. "Even if you get big checks from the Gulf States, you will want development experts to help steer where that money goes. We won't have our own team of experts available. None of this makes any sense."

USAID is aiming to reduce its local staff of about 100 employees to only 14, according to official communications reviewed by NPR. Most of the employees to be laid off are Palestinians or Arab citizens of Israel, and the others are Jewish Israelis.

Last month, USAID held preliminary termination hearings, a formality required by Israeli law in which employees get the chance to plead their case before the termination is final. Next month, the agency is expected to notify employees they'll lose their jobs in July.

Shapiro said it would be difficult and costly to reassemble an experienced team for any future development projects under a future U.S. administration.

Two current employees confirmed they were notified about the likely layoffs, and one of these two said he was optimistic as he awaited final word on his job. Other Palestinian staff members said they were instructed not to speak to the media and declined to comment to NPR.

"The administration is firing a national treasure. People dedicating their lives to fighting for America and fighting for peace," said Dave Harden, former director of USAID's mission for the Palestinian territories. "We are abandoning them."

The administration said Wednesday that it will unveil its peace plan after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assembles his new government and after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early June.

A spokesman for Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser leading peace efforts, did not immediately return a request for comment on whether USAID layoffs could affect the peace plan.

For years, the U.S. ran aid projects in the Palestinian territories with Israel's blessing. But last year, the Trump administration cut half a billion dollars in Palestinian aid, including money to care for Palestinian cancer patients and food to address a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The move was seen as an effort to pressure Palestinian leaders to cooperate with U.S.-led peace efforts.

Early this year, the U.S. abandoned half-complete infrastructure projects like a sewage system for a West Bank city, because of a new U.S. law targeting the Palestinian Authority for financially supporting attackers convicted of killing Israelis.

Now the U.S. is slated to part ways with much of the staff that helped oversee these aid programs.

In response to NPR's request for comment on Wednesday, USAID emailed this statement: "We are not currently taking steps to close the USAID West Bank and Gaza mission. Given the cessation of USAID programs in West Bank and Gaza, coupled with our commitment to proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars, we have begun to take steps to reduce our staffing footprint."

For years, USAID's Palestinian staff often faced personal risk during armed conflict or threats from Palestinian groups for working with the U.S. When the staff faced such threats, American officials evacuated some of these employees from Gaza, Harden said.

"They or their colleagues, USAID contractors, have been caught in crossfire, detained, their families at grave risk, all along representing America," he said.

Some local USAID employees could be offered temporary contracts with other USAID missions in the region, but they are not expected to regain full employment with the agency.

A former Palestinian development officer at USAID, who left the agency in 2015, choked up as he spoke with NPR about his former Palestinian colleagues.

"I'm emotional about this. We meant to change people's lives," he said, speaking anonymously because he did not wish to speak out against his former employer. "People really believed this is doable. USAID [has been] putting in infrastructure for factories, building hundreds of schools, creating thousands of jobs. There was a real hope there might be a future where we could live independently. Now that hope is collapsing."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are revealing news this morning that shows the Trump administration's approach to Israelis and Palestinians. The story involves the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. NPR has learned the agency is preparing to lay off most of its Palestinian aid workers in its West Bank and Gaza mission. NPR's Daniel Estrin bases that revelation on U.S. government communications that he has reviewed, and Daniel's on the line from Jerusalem.

Good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What are these - who are these USAID people, and what have they been doing?

ESTRIN: Well, there are about a hundred local staffers in the USAID mission here. Mostly, they're Palestinian employees; there are also Israelis. And the plan is to lay off all but 14 of them this summer. And these are people who have, you know, been in this mission - which has been here for several decades - trying to invest in the Palestinian territories, investing in infrastructure, in sewage, in clean water and people trying to - well, they say - prepare the path for a peace deal and an independent Palestinian state.

And it's a really emotional moment for people I've been speaking with who've been involved in these efforts because - well, I spoke with one Palestinian man who was on the verge of tears. He spent years working with USAID here. He says USAID had the resources, the connections to open doors and invest. And it gave people hope that things were going in the right direction, and he says now that's vanishing.

INSKEEP: OK. Just to repeat that number, you said there's about a hundred staffers, and it's going to go down to 14...

ESTRIN: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...Local staffers, everybody else being laid off, according to your reporting. How does that fit in with the Trump administration's approach to Palestinians over the past couple of years?

ESTRIN: Well, this is really just the latest chapter in a very long saga, a kind of - a diplomatic war, I guess you could call it, between the U.S. and the Palestinians. It goes all the way back to, well, when you were here, Steve, in Jerusalem when the U.S. moved its embassy here. Trump was backing Israel's claims to the city. Palestinian leaders cut ties with the U.S., said the U.S. can't lead a peace process.

So then president Trump said, well, why do we give the Palestinians all this money when they won't cooperate with us? And then we started to see, as the months went on, the U.S. cut all kinds of money to the Palestinians - money for hospitals for cancer treatment, money for food for poor people in Gaza. And now all USAID projects for the Palestinians have stopped.

INSKEEP: I suppose this has been the Trump administration negotiating strategy up to now - right? - and fairly overt, essentially saying to the Palestinians - take what you believe is a bad deal because if you don't, we're just going to make the deal worse and worse.

ESTRIN: Yes. Well, they've also been saying, you haven't seen the deal yet. And the Trump administration just yesterday said that it will be soon unveiling this long-awaited peace plan at - by early June at the earliest. And they're saying wait to see what the peace plan has in store, and then judge it.

INSKEEP: Is this peace plan likely to be consistent with what the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying? - because of course, he made a last-minute election promise very recently that he would begin annexing parts of the West Bank, territory that Palestinians claim for themselves.

ESTRIN: Right. Honestly, we don't know. The White House is keeping their cards close to their chest. But they have said that this plan is going to feature a big economic component, economic investment in the Palestinian territories. And so going back to these USAID layoffs expected, it raises the question - who is going to be on the ground here to oversee a U.S. plan for economic investment if economic aid experts are laid off?

INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, let's just go back and repeat Daniel Estrin's revelation based on U.S. government communications - and the government has confirmed it, by the way - of about a hundred local aid workers in USAID in the West Bank and Gaza, all but 14 are being laid off.

Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.