By RICK GLADSTONE
The leaders of 21 global aid organizations asked the Trump administration on Wednesday to restore withheld funds to the United Nations agency that helps Palestinians, calling the funding cut a “dangerous and striking departure” from a history of American generosity.
In a letter to top administration officials, the groups’ leaders expressed concern that the White House’s decision to withhold more than half of the planned contribution to the agency, if maintained, would disrupt Palestinian access to food, health care, education “and other critical support to vulnerable populations.”
The administration announced last week that it was withholding $65 million from a scheduled payment of $125 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which aids more than five million Palestinians in refugee camps across the Middle East.
The announcement came after Palestinian leaders had accused the administration of blatantly siding with Israel in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dimming prospects for a Palestinian state that would exist side by side with Israel.
Administration officials said that restoration of the aid depended partly on the Palestinian aid agency’s making unspecified reforms, and that withholding the funds had not been punitive.
Many Palestinians and their supporters disputed that assertion. They pointed to statements by administration officials, including a Jan. 2 Twitter message by President Trump, who complained that “we pay the Palestinians HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.”
United Nations officials said the administration’s move had created the worst financial crisis in the Palestinian aid agency’s seven-decade history.
In their letter, the leaders of the aid groups said: “We are particularly alarmed that this decision impacting humanitarian aid to civilians is not based on any assessment of need, but rather designed both to punish Palestinian political leaders and to force political concessions from them.
“This is simply unacceptable as a rationale for denying civilians humanitarian assistance, and a dangerous and striking departure from U.S. policy on international humanitarian assistance,” the letter stated.
It was signed by top executives of prominent nongovernmental relief and advocacy organizations, including Save the Children, Oxfam America, CARE USA, Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee.
The letter was sent to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, and Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.
Eric P. Schwartz, the president of Refugees International, said in a telephone interview that the letter was the outcome of what he described as “the deep reaction by the N.G.O. community to a very bad decision.”
Mr. Schwartz, a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration under the Obama administration, said the Palestinian aid decision had broken with decades of American policy.
He pointed to President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 assertion that “a hungry child knows no politics” in deciding to help famine victims in Ethiopia.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known by the acronym Unrwa, was created in 1949 to aid Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.
Originally meant to be a temporary support for roughly one million Palestinian refugees until a political solution was reached, the agency evolved into a sprawling organization for them and their descendants, who are also classified as refugees.
Functioning almost like a government in some places, the agency is widely regarded as a critical lifeline for many Palestinians. But it also has been accused of perpetuating what critics call a culture of dependency among a population that has quintupled in size.
Many Israelis regard the agency as politically biased and inherently hostile to Israel, an assertion United Nations officials deny.
Mr. Schwartz defended the agency. “Given the pressures and challenges confronting Unrwa, a fair assessment of their work would conclude they are providing valuable services under extremely difficult conditions,” he said.
Published on The NY Times on January 24, 2018