Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Palestine needs a political solution, not aid

Al Jazeera
Ben White

The funds recieved by the Palestinian Authorities have cast a shadow over the liberation that people are demanding.

Part of the Israeli government's response to critics of its Gaza policy is to deny that there is a "humanitarian crisis" in the coastal territory. The implication being that participants in initiatives such as the flotilla are not concerned with "aid" but seek to cause a political "provocation". In a similar vein, recent news of the opening of a five star hotel in Gaza prompted Israel lobby group AIPAC to suggest that the flotilla's real aim was to "delegitimise Israel".

Rather than go into the specifics of Gaza's socio-economic plight - excellent resources can be found at Gisha/Gaza Gateway, PCHR-Gaza, and OCHA - it is important to emphasise a point missing from Israel's propaganda and also neglected by some rights activists: Palestinians are seeking liberation, not aid. The conditions Palestinians are suffering from have political origins and political solutions. This is not a natural disaster; for more than 40 years, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have been subject to a military regime shaped by the priorities of colonial settlement and apartheid control.

Pro-Israel lobby groups in the West like to explain Israel's Gaza policies as first and foremost a response to "terror", and aimed at preventing arms smuggling. Unexplained is why Israel almost entirely prevents Palestinians from exporting goods out of Gaza, why the military enforces a "buffer zone", targeting farmers and fishermen, and why Israel continues to separate Gaza from the West Bank in contravention of their designation as a "Single Territorial Unit".

Furthermore, Israeli officials are on record as framing the siege as a form of collective punishment. In 2008, then PM Ehud Olmert said that there was "no justification" for allowing "residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards [at Israel]". The year before, an official in Israel's National Security Council said that the goal of the blockade was to "damage Hamas economic position in Gaza and buy time for an increase in Fatah support". In September 2007, Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported on the Israeli military's plans "to limit services to the civilian population in Gaza" in order "to compromise the ability of Hamas to govern".

So this is no secret. Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz noted in May that "the Israeli closure was directed mainly at merchandise, rather than at weapons smuggling". The New York Times wrote that Israel's "goal" meant deliberately "suppressing economic growth in Gaza". A Wikileaks cable described how US officials were repeatedly told by the Israelis that the intention is "to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge". Famously, in early 2006, an advisor to Israel's prime minister said that "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet".

In other words, the conditions facing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are a deliberate result of Israeli policies. A similar logic is at work in the West Bank, where economic gains in recent years are built on the weak foundations of foreign aid and conditional Israeli "concessions".

Over the past 20 years, the Palestinian Authority has received around $20bn in donor funds, and in 2010, development assistance accounted for over one third of GDP. In fact, figures for 2009 show that humanitarian aid to the occupied Palestinian territories was US$1.3bn - just behind Sudan. The money disbursed in the oPt between 1993 and 2003 was "the highest sustained rate of per capita disbursements to an aid recipient in the world since the Second World War".

Thus, even after a (modest) "relaxing" of Israeli restrictions and years of Fayyadism and Tony Blair's pet projects, the World Bank can still say - like it did in April - that "the sustainability of economic growth" in the oPt "remains bleak". Aid, the body said, "is what keeps many Palestinians above the poverty line", and - according to the World Bank Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza: "[Israel's] closure regime remains the most substantial obstacle to Palestinian economic viability."

Pouring money into the coffers of a permanently transitional "Authority" is an alternative for Western and Arab powers to actually challenging Israel - enabling the latter "to maintain its occupation and apply security measures, which are the cause of the demise of the Palestinian economy, knowing that donors will relieve the human costs". Aid not only subsidises Israel's colonial occupation, it also helps perpetuate "the situation in which the Palestinians are a nation of consumers who are unable to produce and unable to compete with the Israeli economy," according to the authors of Aid, Diplomacy And Facts On The Ground.

In the aftermath of the Nakba, Israel was keen for the expelled Palestinians to be seen as a "humanitarian", rather than a "political" issue. Now, the IDF Spokesperson proudly tweets about how many goods Israel "allows" into Gaza. There is no doubt that many Palestinians are in desperate need of assistance - whether in terms of medication, housing, or the basic financial provision to make ends meet. But human rights campaigners and activists should take care not to emphasise aid over freedom.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer, specialising in Palestine and Israel. His first book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide, was published by Pluto Press in 2009, receiving praise from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Nur Masalha and Ghada Karmi.

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