With no Palestinian state in sight, aid becomes an adjunct to occupation
Israeli policy is the root cause of need in the occupied territories, but donors pay up without challenging it
Saturday December 31, 2005
This month has seen a flurry of high-level activity designed to fund the Palestinians under occupation. A private sector investors' conference took place in London to discuss ways of boosting the Palestinian economy. It followed the G7 finance ministers' meeting at the beginning of December, which pledged its support, saying that "economic development of the West Bank and Gaza is an indispensable element of lasting peace in the region". And in the summer, the G8 summit at Gleneagles promised the Palestinian Authority an annual $3bn for three years. Next March, the donor countries will decide their allocations to the PA.
Sounds good. But will these donors pause to consider that Israel's occupation of Palestine is set to continue so long as they remain prepared to underwrite it? The Palestinians' dire need for help is indisputable: the PA is virtually bankrupt and has asked for an immediate injection of $200m, just for basic services, between now and next February. Humanitarian aid alone, however, will not solve the problem.
Working in Ramallah, as I have been, makes this fact glaringly obvious. The kidnapping of aid worker Kate Burton and her parents in Gaza this week is a sharp reminder of the political context of aid. Normally, international aid reaches the Palestinians directly, but also through myriad international NGOs. They are thick on the ground in Palestine: it was estimated in 2003 that were 38 in Ramallah alone and 60 overall, in addition to 80 Palestinian NGOs funded by them. The relationship of funders to NGOs here is complex and potentially coercive. There are consequences for the ablest and best-educated Palestinians, who now work for these NGOs, increasingly distant from the less fortunate in their own society, on projects that do not necessarily reflect local priorities.
The need for renewed funding often obliges NGOs to shape their agendas to those of donors, sometimes in contrast to their own beliefs. In 2004, for example, the US Agency for International Development insisted that Palestinian NGOs pledge not to support anyone with "terrorist links" as a condition for further funding. More blatantly, the EU threatened last week to withdraw all funding if militant groups were allowed to participate in forthcoming Palestinian elections. Subtler forms of pressure are also common, and will inevitably affect the political decision making process.
I found Ramallah was crawling with do-gooders of all nationalities. Being kind to Palestinians is now a big industry, spawned initially by the Oslo Agreement of 1993. At the time, the international community thought this would lead to the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. International aid poured in to support the nascent Palestinian Authority, to build up the infrastructure damaged by decades of Israeli occupation. From 1995 onwards, $7bn was spent on this enterprise, and more was promised following Gaza's evacuation last August.
Underlying this aid was the assumption that a two-state solution was the desired aim, and that the Palestinians would need help to prepare for statehood. So, until 2000, much aid was directed towards state-building projects and those fostering a "positive climate" for peace negotiations. The second intifada that erupted in 2000 halted this process. Donors were forced to switch from state building to emergency support, now running at $1bn annually. The EU and member states bear the brunt of this financial burden. The US also contributes, though far less than it does to Israel. Since 2002, it is the Arab states that have rescued the PA from collapse. Most aid is for humanitarian relief and rebuilding basic infrastructure destroyed by Israeli military assaults.
The Palestinians are today the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid in the world. According to the 2004 World Bank report, they are suffering "the worst economic depression in modern history": 75% are impoverished, and unemployment rates are 60-70% in Gaza and 30-40% in the West Bank. Without external support, the Palestinian infrastructure and basic services would not survive. The Palestinians have been robbed of their agricultural land and industry and had their trade devastated by Israel's closure regime. They have fewer jobs in Israel, which plans to stop using Palestinian labour in 2008. They have virtually no independent sources of livelihood left.
The donors well know the causes of this desperate situation. At a conference in Ramallah last July, the World Bank's representative, Nigel Roberts, candidly admitted that Israel's occupation was the problem. Yet the funding continues, as if for all the world the Palestinians were victims not of a deliberate Israeli policy, but of some natural disaster. In the context of an occupation that denudes the Palestinians of their land and resources, keeps them imprisoned in ghettoes, and controls every aspect of their lives, what should be the rationale of international aid? Without doubt, emergency relief is vital to Palestinian survival and cannot be lightly withdrawn. But should not the root cause, Israel's occupation, be addressed too? Otherwise aid becomes merely an adjunct to the occupation.
By paying up without caveat, donors in effect relieve Israel of its obligations under international law. As the occupying power, Israel must deliver assistance and services to the Palestinian population. As high contracting parties to the Geneva conventions, the donors are obliged to ensure Israel's compliance with the law. None of this has happened. Instead, international aid has rendered the occupation cost-free. It has even enriched Israel's economy: according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, for every dollar produced in the occupied territories, 45 cents flows back to Israel.
Aside from the recent EU criticism of Israel's policies in Arab Jerusalem, which were quickly downplayed, the donors have made no serious attempt to challenge Israel's actions, not even to demand compensation for its destruction of Palestinian projects they had funded. On the contrary, the process of preparing Palestinians for western-style "statehood" has accelerated. Foreign funded projects for "democratisation", "reform", "capacity building" and other imported buzz words have doubled. In the absence of a Palestinian state or any hope of one, this becomes an exercise in cynicism. The donors' efforts to ensure the Palestinian security services can fight "terrorism" (ie resistance to occupation), while Israel's army freely assassinates Palestinians, bombs them and demolishes their homes, is immoral.
By focusing on the effects of occupation rather than ending it, the donors have made the conflict into a scramble for socio-economic survival. But distancing the Palestinians from their national struggle can only help Israel impose its final terms on them. If that is not to happen, then the donors must resolve their dilemma: not abandoning the Palestinians to their fate, and not challenging Israel, are incompatible. Facing up to the bully is a moral imperative, and, ultimately, the only practical way forward.
Ghada Karmi was an information consultant to the PA based in Ramallah
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