The Middle East Channel

Rethinking aid to Palestine

Foreign aid to Palestine is desperately in need of rethinking. Wittingly or not, external aid facilitates Israel’s occupation, enables an inept Palestinian leadership to survive, and subverts much of Palestinian civil society. The extent of the dependency on aid means the Palestinian Authority (PA) must spend considerable energy begging for handouts from Arab governments, the ...


Foreign aid to Palestine is desperately in need of rethinking. Wittingly or not, external aid facilitates Israel’s occupation, enables an inept Palestinian leadership to survive, and subverts much of Palestinian civil society. The extent of the dependency on aid means the Palestinian Authority (PA) must spend considerable energy begging for handouts from Arab governments, the European Union, and the United States. Facing a severe cash shortage — which is not unusual — the PA was recently unable to pay the salaries on which an estimated one million bureaucrats and their families rely.

One of the major problems with external aid was illustrated by the beatings a month ago of young, peaceful Palestinian protesters by PA security forces. The protesters were initially demonstrating against a planned visit to Ramallah by former Israeli Vice-Premier Shaul Mofaz, who has faced travel bans to other countries due to accusations of war crimes during Israel’s attacks on Palestinian cities in 2002. But after the PA security forces assaulted them, protestors organized demonstrations against police brutality.

Israeli forces had destroyed Palestinian security forces in 2002 at the height of the second Intifada. But since 2005 U.S. and EU financial and technical support has not only rebuilt them but also promoted tight coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security services — a coordination only slightly ruffled by Palestinian officials’ meek complaints about continued Israeli incursions into the few areas supposedly under direct Palestinian control (i.e. Area A, a mere 18 percent of the West Bank). Unsurprisingly, Palestinian critics of the PA refer to it as "Israel’s policeman." 

Much has been written about the problems of Israeli-PA security coordination (e.g., Squaring the Circle and Our Man in Palestine), but donors still turn a blind eye. Earlier this month — just a few days after the assaults — European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was proudly escorted by the PA to a college for "police sciences" in the occupied West Bank. He should have taken a moment out of his busy schedule to speak to Mona (not her real name) who told me, "I felt humiliated when I saw the trucks carrying furious police equipped with batons who didn’t hesitate to beat us. And angry that the PA is wasting our collective energy instead of fighting the real enemy."

Instead, Barroso signed a $25 million agreement that included eight more police stations and a prison, with some funds thrown in to strengthen civil society’s monitoring of the security sector. The question of exactly how civil society would exercise such control remained unanswered.

The support to the Palestinian security services is just one problem in the foreign donor-recipient relationship in the occupied Palestinian territories. Another major issue is the way donor aid relieves Israel of its obligation under international law to ensure the welfare of the population under its occupation. A tragicomic episode best illustrates how useful donor aid to the PA is to Israel. Last year, when pro-Israel members of the U.S. Congress rushed to cut off aid to the PA as punishment for seeking full membership at the United Nations, the Israeli government spoke out strongly in defense of that aid. And earlier this month the Israeli government gave the cash-strapped PA an "advance" on the tax money it collects on the PA’s behalf — an arrangement that is just one way the poorly negotiated Oslo Accords have proved disastrous to Palestinian sovereignty.

Not only do donors end up paying for the Palestinians’ basic needs, their funds are often only allowed to go to projects approved by the occupying Israeli forces, actively promoting Israel’s colonization plans. For example, USAID-funded roads in no way challenge Israel’s system of segregated roads or the vast tracts of land grabbed along the way. Such "facilitation" actually violates international law: The International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Israel’s Separation Wall, issued eight years ago last month, says that third party states are precluded from accommodating illegalities.

Moreover, Israel has a history of destroying donor-funded projects, most recently in Area C of the West Bank where it has full security control, and which it is emptying of Palestinians. An estimated 62 EU-funded structures have been destroyed and another 110 are at risk of demolition. EU foreign ministers finally issued an unusually harsh criticism of Israeli actions, saying pointedly that they would not only continue to invest in Area C but expected "such investment to be protected for future use." However, EU protests ring hollow considering it has just enhanced EU-Israeli economic cooperation. 

Then there’s the money donors pour into "institution-building" — without actually adding much to what was done during the late Yasser Arafat’s era, according to an authoritative analysis. This partly stems from the mistaken belief that sustainable development is possible under prolonged occupation, even though major aid agencies such as the World Bank produce one report after another highlighting the insurmountable obstacles.

Aid has also had a very negative impact on Palestinian civil society. Non-violent civil resistance was the hallmark of the First Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1993 and the Oslo Accords, non-governmental organizations have, with some notable exceptions, tailored programs to donor agendas rather than to the quest for freedom.

There have been many Palestinian critiques of donor aid and their voices are getting louder. The same Palestinian youth who organized the late June early July demonstrations — Palestinians with Dignity — issued a declaration July 30 slamming the EU for its hypocrisy, warning it to reverse course or they would "challenge its presence and operations in Palestine."

A satirical play on donor aid was recently produced in the West Bank, with a clear call for greater accountability. Yet this has not been forthcoming. The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which transfers EU and U.S. aid to the PA was reportedly unable to arrange a meeting with donors for the Ramallah-based Dalia Association to discuss its findings about how aid could be violating Palestinian human rights.

Clearly, an urgent review of aid policies in the OPT is long overdue. No one is arguing that all aid be terminated; Palestinians need to survive on their land and fulfill such basic rights as education, work, and health. However, in the absence of a political framework, aid to Palestine is doing far more harm than good.

Why do donors ignore the harm their aid does? Partly because it suits some donors, particularly the United States to have a mechanism to keep the PA in line. And partly because there is not yet enough internal or external pressure on Europe and North America to counter Israel’s strong lobbies and push those countries’ governments to uphold international law and end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Absent such pressure, it is much easier for Western governments to live with the status quo, salving their conscience through aid.

There are ways to help Palestinians stay on their land without doing harm that should be seriously considered. But the bottom line is this: What Palestinians need is the European and American political will to stop Israel’s colonization and end discrimination. Without it, they face continued dispossession and exclusion, and no amount of aid will help.  

Nadia Hijab is Director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.