RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. government is a major aid donor to the Palestinians, but this year, the Trump administration has withheld millions of dollars even for projects to address a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. NPR's Daniel Estrin went to see what effect that's having on people there.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Here's one thing U.S. taxpayers have paid for in Gaza - eye surgeries. This state-of-the-art surgical equipment comes with a sticker that says in Arabic, from the American people. U.S. money subsidizes cataract surgeries so even poor Palestinians can get them. Abdel Rahman al Hams watches over his mom, Shafika, in the recovery room at St. John Eye Hospital in Gaza.
ABDEL RAHMAN AL HAMS: She says that she's feeling better now because she can see around. After the surgery, she count fingers.
ESTRIN: And she couldn't do that before the surgery?
ESTRIN: But money's nearly run out to send doctors to do eye surgeries and train local surgeons. That's because the Trump administration has frozen most of the $251 million earmarked for Palestinian aid projects this year. Aid agencies are cutting back. Hilary DuBose says her group, Catholic Relief Services, can't give any more food vouchers. Half of Gazans live under the poverty line.
HILARY DUBOSE: And nothing is more frustrating as a humanitarian aid worker to see a humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of you that you can't do anything about.
MANAL FASIH: (Speaking Arabic).
ESTRIN: Manal Fasih lists the food she used to get with U.S. funding.
FASIH: (Through interpreter) White cheese, yellow cheese, halva for the kids, spices, tomatoes, pasta, noodles, sugar, rice - everything we needed for the home, they gave us. May God bless them.
ESTRIN: She opens an empty jar in her kitchen. She's run out of za'atar, a local spice as basic as salt and pepper. She's run out of rice and oil and cheese. She begins to cry silently over the sink. She says she's sorry to bother me with her troubles. Her husband Fathi he thinks the U.S. is cutting aid to pressure Palestinians to get on board with the Trump administration's peace efforts with the Israelis.
FATHI: (Through interpreter) This is humanitarian aid for people who need it. It shouldn't have anything to do with politics.
ESTRIN: The U.S. says it's freezing aid to review if it's advancing U.S. policy goals. This came after the Palestinian Authority stopped dealing with the Trump administration because President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, says the U.S. does want to help the Palestinians.
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NIKKI HALEY: But we're not fools. If we extend a hand in friendship and generosity, we do not expect our hand to be bitten.
ESTRIN: Gaza is in crisis. Almost half of the workforce is without jobs. Now, without U.S. funds, some Gazans who work for U.S. aid projects are themselves out of a job. Bassam Nasser is a Palestinian who runs the Catholic Relief Services' Programs in Gaza. He walks me through dark offices. He's given the pink slip to half his staff.
BASSAM NASSER: It takes five minutes for a staff member to start crying. The majority of the staff members will have serious financial problems as they receive the termination letters. We are very sad. We don't want this. We want to continue.
ESTRIN: After a recent wave of violence, Trump administration officials said it's impossible to make a lasting investment in Gaza because the militant group Hamas rules there. Dave Harden, who used to oversee U.S. aid to the Palestinians during the Obama administration, says shutting down U.S. aid projects could actually empower Hamas.
DAVE HARDEN: I can tell you who will fill the vacuum - Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran and Islamic Jihad. And we will have ceded this space.
ESTRIN: There is some money the U.S. recently released for Palestinians - money for Palestinian security forces to help Israel combat militants in the West Bank. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza.
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