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Punishing Palestine: How the US plays politics with aid

Libby Powell on how the US has retaliated after Palestine’s UN statehood bid

January 4, 2012
7 min read

In September, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas handed an official letter to United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-moon containing his people’s bid for statehood at the UN table. Then he turned to ask the world. As he concluded his address to the heads of the collected nations, he was greeted with a standing ovation. Crowds in Palestine, watching New York on a large screen, roared, their faces proudly daubed with the colours of their flag. After 63 years of occupation, their appeal was for recognition that they, like Israel, have a legal right to exist. Well aware of the US intentions to veto their bid at the security council, they celebrated anyway, welcoming a day of empowering action after months of stalled talks.

Two days later, despite expressions of alarm from members of the Obama administration and international aid agencies, the US Congress voted to slash $200 million of humanitarian aid to Palestine. Standing in front of Congress members, the American-Jewish policy analyst, Elliott Abrams, held up the suspension of aid as the perfect punishment: ‘It is a good way of telling the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] officials that their caper in New York was a serious mistake and that they will pay a price for it.’

Gaza’s aid-dependency

More than 75 per cent of the 1.6 million Palestinians trapped in the walled enclave of Gaza are dependent on aid. Half of these are children. The former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), John Ging, said that, in 2010, Gaza was already in the ninth year of using emergency rations. The queues outside their distribution centres lengthened significantly after the 22-day Israeli assault at the start of 2009, which left thousands without homes and unable to rebuild.

Gaza’s aid-dependency is firmly rooted in its inability to trade with the outside world, prevented by the Israeli blockade, which is now into its fourth year. Suspended in a frozen economy, people’s skills have stagnated. There were once thriving agriculture and fishing industries; today 35 per cent of Gaza’s farmland and 85 per cent of its fishing waters are inaccessible due to Israeli military measures. The undernourished industries are barely supplemented by the piecemeal imports that come up through Rafah’s maze of hazardous tunnels.

The blockade has created a unique, man‑made poverty, carefully crafted to prevent starvation but promote suffering.

Congress’s decision will augment the sad reality that, across the West Bank and Gaza, access to aid is persistently obstructed by politics. Some $85 million of the cut US funding was due to go towards improving the struggling Palestinian health system. Just to reach clinics, patients must run the gauntlet of the more than 500 checkpoints that divide up the West Bank, or submit themselves to the political lottery of the Israeli health permit system to access treatment outside Gaza.

Those that reach the clinics find that supplies are often scarce and doctors lack training. Even with the support of international donors, healthcare is not a given right.

Playing politics with aid

Steve James, chief executive for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), said he was ‘deeply concerned about the implications of the US withdrawing aid funding from the Palestinian Authority’. Haven spent more than two decades working with Palestinian communities on health development, MAP has increasingly come up against the politicisation of aid as a barrier to health. ‘In addition to the very real impact it will have on the health and welfare of Palestinians, the decision is a clear case of playing politics with aid,’ said James.

Beyond the humanitarian consequences, the political precedent this sets is deeply concerning. The concept of international humanitarian assistance is founded on a shared belief that every human has the right to life without suffering. This principle cannot be pegged to the political whims of a powerful donor, lest we endorse a corrupt global economy whereby humanitarian aid is held hostage to political submission.

Palestine’s ‘caper in New York’ was an occupied nation seeking statehood through the most legitimate and legal channel available, as opposed to the potential bloodshed of a third intifada. Congress’s subsequent decision to withdraw aid can be viewed as nothing less than the collective punishment of a civilian population and blatant political blackmail. Palestinians looking around at their neighbouring Arab states will rightly be questioning why international funds have been poured into the uprisings of the Arab Spring (and the regimes that preceded them) while they must bear grave sanctions for sending one man and a letter to the UN table.

In the wake of the decision, the US can no longer maintain its incongruous role as a supposed ‘honest broker’ of peace between Israel and Palestine. The inequality of support is now staggering. Israel is set to benefit from $3 billion-plus in aid from the US in 2012. It is the largest cumulative recipient of aid since the second world war. The allocated budget, said Republican US official Nita Lowey, ‘fully funds our commitment to ensure our ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge’. The great moat of wealth disparity that runs along the length of the separation wall grows deeper by the day.

US demands that Palestine must simply sit down and play by their rules are increasingly absurd. For one, the notion that Israeli officials have been waiting patiently at the negotiating table with olive branches in their hands has all but evaporated over the past year. The ‘Palestine papers’ leaked in January 2011 revealed that Israel has time and again rejected requests for compromise; its rebuttals have been so extensive that Palestinian negotiators were humiliated to see the papers published. Israel’s ongoing refusal to halt settlement-building during negotiations, Palestine’s prerequisite for returning to the talks, is further evidence of its disregard for the process.

Congress’s cuts do not stop at the door of the Palestinian Authority. Two US laws, passed in 1991 and 1994 by the Bush and Clinton administrations respectively, made it mandatory to halt funding to a UN agency that granted membership to a Palestinian state. These laws were explicitly introduced to scare UN agencies into rejecting Palestine as a member, thereby keeping it in a state of rolling isolation.

A Palestinian state

Israel and the US are most fearful of Palestine’s potential membership of the International Criminal Court, for then Israel is likely to be called to account for its actions and the deaths of civilians during the 2009 war on Gaza.

Despite the punitive US laws, UNESCO has been the first of the UN agencies to accept the state of Palestine as a member. The US has already suspended its funding as a result, and others are likely to follow.

Speaking to Congress before the vote, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, reminded her fellow congressmen of the old laws: ‘The George H W Bush administration, which is highly regarded to this day for its success in multilateral diplomacy, made a bold pledge: the US would withhold funding to any UN entity that granted membership, or any upgraded status, to the PLO. The PLO’s scheme was stopped dead in its tracks. The administration should use the same funding conditions that worked two decades ago to stop Palestine’s dangerous unilateral scheme today.’

What Congress really fears is that Palestine may realise that, after years of being locked between two aggressive powers, the world is ready to accept a state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders. ‘How will any Palestinian leader be able to accept less when he sits down with Israel than he has already gotten at the UN?’ asks Elliott Abrams, nervously.

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