North Africa, West Asia

By misdiagnosing Israel-Palestine, donor aid harms Palestinians

No amount of aid can bring about a just, positive, and lasting peace, until the fundamental injustices of occupation and dispossession are seen for what they are.


Jeremy Wildeman
21 May 2014
Fatah members withdrawing foreign aid currency in Rafah

Fatah members withdrawing foreign aid currency in Rafah. Demotix/Abed Rahim Khatib. All rights reserved.

It has been over 20 years since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the first Oslo agreement in September 1993, and nearly 20 years since Oslo II in 1995, which expanded Palestinian self-rule while dividing up the West Bank and Gaza into areas controlled at varying degrees of sovereignty by Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Since then, Europe and the United States have invested billions of dollars into the 'Israeli-Palestinian peace process', to stimulate economic growth and build Palestinian state institutions. This liberal-technocratic approach to peace-building has been predicated on the notion that politics can be separated from economics, and that prosperity and stability can be synonymous with peace even in the absence of justice and equality.

The ensuing peace process has witnessed one major Palestinian uprising (perhaps astonishingly, only one), and numerous large-scale Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza that have ravaged Palestinian cities and towns. At the same time, the Israeli settler population has doubled to number more than half-a-million colonists. Living in hundreds of outposts throughout the West Bank, those settlers now control about half of its territory and nearly all of its water table. In the small pockets of land left to Palestinian control (Area A) by Oslo II, donor aid keeps the Palestinian Authority afloat, while allowing unelected Palestinian politicians to maintain their power and prestige in return for participating in endless negotiations with Israel. As a process meant to deliver peace, prosperity and autonomy to Palestinians the Oslo peace process has been a violent failure. As a process allowing Israel to continue its settlement expansion in the West Bank while outsourcing its management of the occupied population to a subservient Palestinian Authority, Oslo has been a smashing success.

The Oslo peace process, propped up by western donor support, is based on a false premise of decolonisation, a process where Israel should relinquish military control over the occupied territories in exchange for a pledge of peace and security from Palestinians, the so-called ‘two-state’ solution. This view reinforces a bifurcated, colonial and statist vision of the Israel/Palestine conflict (always conflict, never occupation in the language of the donors), which sees Arabs and Jews as two historically distinct peoples each requiring their own land within neatly defined boundaries. This view is blind to centuries of heterogeneous coexistence (sometimes fraught, often harmonious) in the region. It also fails to account for the ways in which Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Jewish settler presence in the West Bank explode any neat demarcation between two “states”. Above all, this donor approach ultimately neglects the very nature of settler colonialism, as a distinct 'social formation'. Unlike European colonialism in much of Africa, Asia and the Pacific during the nineteenth century, which sought to extract labour and resources from subject peoples who were ruled vicariously through local proxies, Israeli settler colonialism is more akin to that which devastated the Americas from the fifteenth century on, where the main goal was the capture of land and the destruction of any other population on it. 

So like its antecedents in the New World, the goal of political Zionism has always been to divorce the land of Palestine from its inhabitants, and to return it to its rightful inheritors, 'God’s chosen people'. In this way, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel is not an accident brought about by a war of necessity, but rather a successful culmination of long-standing territorial strategy pre-dating the formation of the state of Israel itself.

By merely ignoring this settler-colonial legacy in Israel/Palestine, foreign aid to Palestine actually reinforces it. Aid projects in Areas C and B (under full and shared Israeli sovereignty respectively) may help repair Palestinian roads or connect Palestinian villages to electricity, but this only relieves the occupier of their duties under international law to provide for the occupied population and further allows Israel to focus its resources on settlement construction. Meanwhile aid to the Palestinian Authority in Area A, be it funding to build a hospital or a new police barracks, relieves the occupier of its burden for policing and maintaining control over the occupied Palestinian population.

The result is that far from being a decolonising project, the Oslo donor agenda becomes inverted and instead reinforces the construction of a Palestinian state within a settler logic, a mere reordering of the colonial architecture made to look more palatable to the international community. For western donors any Palestinian state must be strong enough to police the Palestinians without threatening Israel, and legitimate enough to maintain rule of law without exercising any real sovereignty. However, for the Palestinians, theirs has never been solely the struggle for a state with Palestinian police at Palestinian checkpoints and Palestinian wardens in Palestinian jails. It has been a struggle for autonomy, self-determination, freedom and dignity. Foreign aid premised on the model of security and prosperity (for Israel) runs completely counter to Palestinian aspirations and notions of a fair peace in the region.

This is not to suggest that all donors and all aid and development projects in Palestine are naturally nefarious. Indeed, fuelled by a sense of solidarity, many donors support critical, human rights-based work, highlighting the realities of settler colonialism while supporting Palestinian resilience. Some are even forced to risk their careers and the existence of their organisations fulfilling their mandates as aid-providers in often hostile political environments, as has happened to a number of Canadian charities in recent years. Likewise, we do not mean to suggest that Palestinians, and even the Palestinian Authority itself, are not able to work within and subvert the donor agenda to achieve their own goals. Our issue is mainly with the nature of bilateral aid funding to the Palestinian Authority, and its critical role reinforcing the Israeli occupation.

To get an idea of how this support for the PA directly supports the occupation, one need only look at Israel’s enthusiasm for it. In a 2011 report to donors at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), Israel called for “the on-going international support for the PA budget and development projects that will contribute to the growth of a vibrant private sector, which will provide the PA an expanded base for generating internal revenue” (which Israel can pilfer through customs and taxes). In a 2012 AHLC report to Brussels, Israel made an even more audacious argument, that the Palestinians not only needed further aid, but this need for aid was “proof” that they were not ready for independence from Israeli rule.

Like the Oslo peace process itself, donor aid to the Palestinian Authority is designed to fail due to its own internal contradictions. If ever it were to succeed, Israel would have to accept the existence of an independent, functioning Palestinian state with full sovereignty over its land and resources, and the Palestinian Authority would have to exist without a steady stream of aid revenue. If western donors truly want to see the Palestinian economy grow they need to apply political pressure on Israel to stop actively de-developing it under occupation. Palestinians do not need hundreds-of-millions of dollars in bilateral aid to keep their economy on life-support. They need full control over their own natural resources in the Jordan valley; sovereignty over holy sites and tourist attractions in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank; control over their own territorial waters in Gaza for fishing and gas exploration; and the ability to build houses, schools, roads, electricity plants, telecommunications networks, sewage treatment facilities, factories, and water wells without Israeli permits or fear of their imminent destruction by the Israeli military.

Indeed, countless critical voices within Palestinian civil society have been offering such viable solutions, while calling for an entire rethinking of the Oslo model. Donors need to realise that the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a crisis to be managed with quick technocratic fixes and tweaks, but a political struggle. No amount of aid can bring about a just, positive, and lasting peace, until the fundamental injustices of occupation and dispossession are seen for what they are.

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Sources

UN-OCHA. “The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Settlement policies.”January 2012.

Veracini, Lorenzo. “The Other Shift: Settler Colonialism, Israel, and the Occupation.” Journal of Palestine Studies 42, no. 2 (April 1, 2013): 26–42. doi:10.1525/jps.2013.42.2.26, pp. 27

Russell, Lynette. Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies. Manchester University Press, 2001, pp. 2

Clark, Campbell. “Ed Broadbent Defends Rights Agency’s Independence.” Globe and Mail, January 15, 2010.

Report of the Government of Israel to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee.” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (18 Sep 2011) 

State of Israel. (March 21, 2012) “Measures Taken by Israel in Support of Developing the Palestinian Economy and Socio-Economic Structure.” Brussels, pp. 7

Roy, Sara. “De-Development Revisited: Palestinian Economy and Society Since Oslo.” Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 3 (April 1999): 64–82. doi:10.2307/2538308.

Tartir, Alaa, Sam Bahour, and Samer Abdelnour. Defeating Dependency, Creating a Resistance Economy. Economic Issues. Al Shabaka, February 14, 2012.

Nakhleh, Khalil. The Myth of Palestinian Development: Political Aid and Sustainable Deceit. PASSIA, 2004; Dana, Tariq. “Palestinian Civil Society: What Went Wrong?” Al-Shabaka, April 15, 2013.

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