ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Trump administration is cutting U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees. It will no longer give money to the United Nations for services in refugee camps that have existed for decades. Those services range from schools to health care to garbage collection. This is just the latest White House move shaking up longstanding policy in the Middle East and taking a more pro-Israel stance. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Jerusalem to walk us through this. Hi, Daniel.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: This aid has a long history. What was it meant for?
ESTRIN: This is money that's gone to a special U.N. agency devoted to Palestinian refugees. It's called the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, and it runs all kinds of basic services in Palestinian refugee camps, as you mentioned. These are camps that have been around for about 70 years. When Israel was founded, Palestinians fled or were driven out of lands that became the state of Israel. And these refugee camps that - today they're more like urban slums - they're in the West Bank. They're in Gaza. But they're also in countries like Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.
And the refugee issue is one of the Palestinians' core demands. They demand the right of return for refugees to go back to what is today Israel. And Israel says that would spell out the end of the country as a Jewish state. Now, until this year, the U.S. has been the largest single donor to the Palestinian refugees. And the idea has been that, you know, until a solution to the refugee question comes, that would be solved in peace talks.
SHAPIRO: So what reason does the Trump administration give for cutting this funding?
ESTRIN: Well, the U.S. has had a lot of criticism of this U.N. agency and so have Israeli leaders. Israel has said that the U.N. is perpetuating the refugee problem rather than rehabilitating it. And here, the State Department today is saying it wants other countries to pitch in to cover costs. It says this agency is, quote, "irredeemably flawed." And the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, spoke about this recently. Here's what she said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NIKKI HALEY: First of all, you're looking at the fact that, yes, there's an endless number of refugees that continue to get assistance. But more importantly, the Palestinians continue to bash America.
ESTRIN: So two points there. She's saying, you know, there are these third and fourth generations of Palestinians, descendants of refugees. They're themselves considered refugees. Israel says, you know, that perpetuates this false hope that millions of Palestinians would one day return to Israel, you know, this - although it has been a common way of dealing with refugee situations in the world. It's not just the Palestinians. The U.N. has given help to refugees and their descendants as long as they're refugees.
And then the other thing that Haley said there is something we've heard a lot from this administration, which is Palestinians not showing respect to the U.S.
SHAPIRO: And what has the reaction been from Palestinians to this move by the Trump administration?
ESTRIN: Yeah. Palestinian official Saeb Erekat today is calling this totally unacceptable. He says the U.S. is acting according to the whims of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Palestinian leaders have seen this coming. They think it's part of the Trump administration's attempt to undermine the core Palestinian positions one by one - first Jerusalem, when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, even though Palestinians demand a part of that city, and now this demand for Palestinian refugees to return to today's Israel. That's what Palestinians demand, but they see Trump is trying to undermine that.
SHAPIRO: What effect do you expect these cuts to have on the Palestinian people?
ESTRIN: Well, this is money that has gone to help feed needy Palestinians. It's helped run schools and clinics. At the moment, money is being raised from other sources to recoup what the U.S. hasn't given this year. But the U.N. says, for instance, they only have enough money to run their schools for refugees for about a month.
And there are other concerns, including by people in the Israeli defense community, that these cuts could create instability if you don't have basic services and - because of these funding cuts. And remember, this comes just a week after the U.S. cut money for development projects and humanitarian aid in the Palestinian territories.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Daniel Estrin speaking with us from Jerusalem. Thank you.
ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.