Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Givers and Takers

Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground: the Case of Palestine, eds. Michael Keating, Anne Le More and Robert Lowe, London: Chatham House, 2005

At the Palestine roundtable of a Voices of the Poor conference recently held in Spain, the Spanish journalist Teresa Aranguren made an insightful remark. Palestine, she said, was not a poor country. To clarify her point, she compared British Mandate Palestine to Spain during the civil war (1936-39). The Palestinians, she said, were not a poor people: only with the massive dispossession and displacement which resulted from the establishment of the State of Israel did the Arab population become either second- class citizens within Israel or refugees in the Palestinian Diaspora.

Anyone who has been to Israel/Palestine will agree that the main cause of contemporary Palestinian poverty is Israeli occupation. While international aid has played a pivotal role in attempting to alleviate this phenomenon, many questions persist. Who gives such large amounts of financial assistance to the occupied Palestinian territories and who takes from the Palestinian people? What are the donors' motivations for these monetary injections and how effective has the implementation of these funds been? And why does foreign aid continue to increase while the Palestinian economy continues to stagnate?

Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground; the Case of Palestine provides the most recent analysis of the complexities of donor aid to Palestine. This collection of essays by Israeli, Palestinian and international specialists departs from the fact that between 1993 and 2003 the West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians received the highest amount of international aid of any recipient in the world since the Second World War. To explain why Palestinians remain mainly below the poverty level, the essays present different views on the corruption of the Palestinian political system, the controversial use of NGOs in representing Palestinian society, and the Israeli avoidance of paying for the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The contributors all conclude, however, that until Israel puts an end, or is made to end, its illegal military occupation of Palestine, the stagnation of the Palestinian economy will continue unabated.

From 1993 to 2003, the occupied Palestinian territories received US$6 billion of international aid. Half of these funds were disbursed after the second intifada erupted following Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram Al-Sharif / Temple Mount at the end of September 2000. In 2003, the United States gave US$224 million; the European Commission US$187 million, the League of Arab States US$124 million and Spain -- the 10th largest donor -- US$17 million. Due to the destructive Israeli policy of massive retaliation, a majority of these funds has now been diverted from development projects to emergency relief. Figures given in Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground claim the ratio has changed from 7:1 before the second intifada to 1:5 by 2002.

As Isabel Casado López, another contributor at the Palestine roundtable, mentioned, this massive amount of money is spent mostly on infrastructure reconstruction projects, including roads, schools, houses and hospitals, which have been destroyed by Israel. Spain, she also mentioned, has helped finance the reconstruction of the Gaza International Airport in Rafah. The runway of the airport was bulldozed by Israeli during the second intifada. In theory, such destructive acts should obviously decrease incentives for donor assistance. Nonetheless, international aid continues at an unprecedented rate.

After the annual G8 meeting at Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that besides relieving poverty and sickness on the African continent, the "G8 also gave its strong support to the Middle East Peace Process and pledged its support for a package of assistance of up to US$3 billion a year for Palestine." The publication of Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Grounds fell less than a week after the G8 meeting, providing direct recommendations on how successfully to implement the proclaimed international aid.

At the launch of the book in July 2005 at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, talk of poverty, as usual, was on the menu. Yet, the participants, comprising Michael Keating (UNSCO), Larry Garber (New Israel Fund), David Shearer (OCHA), Anne Le More (Oxford University) and Yossi Alpher (, all agreed that unless the status quo is drastically altered, international aid will continue to perpetuate Palestinian poverty in the occupied Palestinian territories. One of the most important facts mentioned was that donors have not used aid to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory. On the contrary, the participants reiterated that international aid to the Palestinians "plays into and reinforces the Israeli occupation of Palestine," and they expressed the belief that ending the occupation is the most important step in changing the status quo. Only Yossi Alpher, former senior advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, claimed that this tactic would not work and could backfire.

Most of the essays in Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground take the 1993 Oslo Accords as a point of departure. Oslo was the historic "watershed" and financial "turning point" for foreign aid in the occupied Palestinian territories. Believing that peace was close at hand, international donors turned their diplomatic influence and opened their cheque books to the newly founded Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), both created as a result of Oslo, respectively in 1994 and 1996.

Since 1949, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had received continual international funding to relieve the plight of Palestinian refugees within the occupied Palestinian territories and in the neighboring Arab "host" countries (Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). Yet, Oslo not only depleted the financial support sent to the humanitarian aid organisation, but even worse, it decreased the general socio- economic livelihood of the Palestinians. However, though UNRWA was the primary institutional loser, the Palestinian refugees lost much more. They suddenly found themselves further marginalized from the political processes determining their fate and increasingly deprived of the possibility of ever returning to what remains of Palestine. The case becomes even more complicated where Palestinians are refugees within the occupied Palestinian territories.

In the Gaza Strip, for example, many of the 1.3 million Palestinians are refugees, mostly from the wars of 1948 and 1967; the most recent were displaced as a result of Israeli reprisals during the second intifada. Providing financial support for the Palestinian 1996 and 2005 elections, in which Diaspora Palestinians were not permitted to cast their vote, meant international money largely contributed to the "de-democratization of civil society in the West Bank and Gaza instead of increasing the capacity of civil society for democratization," as Karma Nabulsi has shown in her study The State-Building Project: What Went Wrong?

The use of NGOs in maintaining Palestinian livelihoods also remains a central point of contention. Nabulsi claims that NGOs receive enough funding to give them a level of legitimacy that permits them "to address international actors and diplomats ... on behalf of Palestinian society." However, though motivated by what the German playwright Bertolt Brecht called the "terrible temptation of good", the role of NGOs has become as highly politicized as other facets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Competition amongst NGOs for foreign funding and corruption when distributing the funds is becoming the name of the game. However, the more worrying side of donor-driven NGO activities in the occupied Palestinian territories is that they are "acting for" the Palestinians instead of permitting Palestinian society to take its own initiatives.

Where UNRWA lost financially and the Palestinian refugees lost their representation, the PA won monetarily and politically. But the PA has failed repeatedly, on any success barometer, to meet the needs of the Palestinian people. One of the "Hard Lessons from Oslo," as Nigel Roberts asserts here, was that the systematic injections of "walking around money" for Arafat not only remained in place, but increased under the PA. International aid thus helps both the Israeli "de-development" of the Palestinian economy and has no other choice but to support Palestinian political corruption.

In her piece, Anne Le More analyses the systematic Israeli use of "closures" in the occupied Palestinian territories and concludes that the "process of 'bantustanization' whereby the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip become a collection of isolated areas and enclaves separated from one another stands in sharp contradiction to the sine qua non of territorial contiguity as the basis for an economically and politically viable Palestinian state." The territorial fragmentation and the Israeli "matrix of control" -- Jewish bypass roads, military checkpoints, prolonged curfews, and sudden sieges -- presents a further catch with respect to the mobility of Palestinians both inside and outside of Israel/ Palestine.

In the months following the appearance of this book, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) unilaterally evacuated the Jewish settlements (August 15-17) and withdrew militarily (September 11-12) from the Gaza Strip. However, 38 years of occupation did not end with the much publicised "disengagement": Israel still maintains land, air and sea control of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli retreat, Israel also seized more Palestinian territory in the West Bank by incorporating the large Jewish settlements of Ma'ale Adumim and Har Homa within the separation wall. This has meant not only the illegal acquisition of territory, illegal under international law, but also the inclusion of all of East Jerusalem within Israel.

The West Bank is now effectively divided into two parts, each consisting of fragmented pockets of Palestinian autonomous areas. The immense increase of international aid will remain a life-line to the Palestinian people, but it will also assist in the further fragmentation of Palestinian territory. Only with a strict reassessment of why and how international aid is implemented will Palestinians begin to emerge from poverty.

The realities on the ground presented by the contributors to Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground all lead to the same conclusion: there will be no end to Palestinian poverty until the Israeli occupation ends. While the book does not resolve the central paradox of donor assistance to the occupied Palestinian territories, it poses pertinent questions regarding this paradox. Regardless of donor country intentions, the authors of this book all seem to agree that donor assistance is used as an instrument of survival by the Palestinians and as a means of financing the occupation by Israel. The final paradox is that foreign aid remains "hostage to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict".

Ironically, after all the talk of a two-state solution and contrary to what the "separation wall" may imply, the only feasible long-term resolution now appears to be an eventual one-state solution, comprised of Palestinians and Israelis, including Christians, Muslims and Jews, within the same state.

By Stuart Reigeluth

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