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Aid as a weapon

Ever since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, there has been a familiar pattern in the Occupied Territories: Israel destroys Palestinian civilian infrastructure, and the international community foots the bill.

This has been reproduced once more, on a grand scale, as billions of dollars were promised this week at the Egypt-hosted donor conference for devastated Gaza, far exceeding the Palestinian Authority’s initial target.

It remains to be seen how much of this aid will actually get through to the Palestinians imprisoned in Gaza, who continue to live in the rubble of thousands of homes, and hundreds of businesses, factories and schools. Two-thirds of the US contribution of $900 million, for example, is not even earmarked for Gaza.

There is also the question of how the aid will make a practical difference on the ground, given that Israel refuses to let in even tomato paste and paper – not to mention construction materials, generators (or “an entire water purification system”). Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth observed: “Israel’s blockade policy can be summed up in one word and it is punishment, not security.”

The practicalities of promised aid translating into reconstruction should not distract, however, from three fundamental problems with the donor conference. The first is that it is yet another manifestation of the economically crippling and politically flawed donor-dependency framework begun by the Oslo process.

This has meant pouring money into the Palestinian Authority, the permanently-temporary “state in waiting”, in order to keep a failed institution solvent and Palestinian society away from the brink of collapse. Not only does Israel get to shirk its responsibility as the occupying power, but the aid focus also demonstrates the international community’s lack of political will to tackle the root causes of the Palestinian economic crisis and social disintegration.

Tony Blair made his first visit to the Gaza Strip in his capacity as the Quartet’s special envoy the day before the donor conference. While Blair described himself as “appalled by what is happening” in Gaza, as well as declaring that lifting the Israeli “blockade” was essential, his comments made it feel like Gaza had suffered a natural disaster, rather than a massive military attack deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.

Interviewed on al-Jazeera English, Blair did not mention Israel’s onslaught once, barring an acknowledgement that “people can disagree strongly with actions that Israel has taken”. He did however identify the overarching “problem” – “a divided Palestinian politics” and the “rockets fired at innocent Israeli civilians” from Gaza.

Israel, it seems, is not responsible at all for the “problem”. On the day of the donor conference, Ha’aretz’s website led with “Clinton: Mideast peace can’t afford more delays”, while the second headline was “Gaza donor conference: Who is pledging what”. The third story, however, was “Peace Now: Israel planning 73,000 new homes in the West Bank”.

Even leaving aside the West Bank context, the root of Gaza’s problem is not a lack of aid, but Israel’s politically-motivated blockade. It’s not primarily about the rockets, or even Gilad Shalit: it is “a siege designed to depose Hamas rule“.

Some people can have short memories. Israel’s “ever-tighter economic blockade” goes back to the redeployment of summer 2005 and it considerably worsened after the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Israel’s goal, as Ha’aretz described, “was to prevent Hamas from enabling the population to lead a normal life”, an act that “constituted collective punishment for 1.5 million Palestinians”, with the assumption being “that economic distress would bring down the Hamas regime”.

The second problem with the donor conference is the way in which it was another exercise in denying the obvious: Hamas has to be engaged, not sidelined. There’s something absurd, for example, about the British government’s parallel recognition of the need to talk with Hamas (itself a relatively new development), as long as it’s not ‘”us” doing the talking.

The donor conference then, called on behalf of a territory whose ruling authorities are to be excluded from both the planning and implementation of reconstruction, is a continuation of a bankrupt and failed strategy. In a superb bit of unintended irony, Blair was asked on al-Jazeera about the prospect of working with a hard-right Netanyahu government. His reply – “We’ve got to work with whoever the Israeli people elect” – should tell the Palestinians exactly how much their democratic will is valued in comparison.

The third problem with the donor conference is the hypocrisy of seeing countries that are responsible for Gaza’s miserable state lining up to score political points by donating money for aid. It’s not only that Israel received military hardware and diplomatic cover from the same dignitaries now shaking their heads at the “devastation” they did nothing to stop. In fact, Gaza was suffering under abysmal conditions before Operation Cast Lead, on account of the international community’s policies of punitive isolation and aid-as-weapon.

Just a few weeks after the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in early 2006 discussions began between the US and Israel about how best to “destabilise the Palestinian government”. The intention, the New York Times reported, would be “to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections” so that “Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement”.

While Israel was implementing its own sanctions, the Quartet decided to cut aid to the PA, in what Médecins Sans Frontières described as “retaliatory measures that impact on the entire population”. It was obvious, even in April 2006, what kind of disastrous effects such policies would have on Palestinian society and politics, as the UN and local NGOs anticipated.

A year on from the PLC elections, Oxfam was warning that “conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were close to melt-down” as a direct result of the international community’s boycott of the PA. The charity’s international director pointed out that “using international aid as a battering ram to force through political change is not only immoral but also counter-productive”.

Unfortunately, the donor conference is another sign that as yet there still has been no fundamental shift in policy, three years on from Hamas’s success in the Palestinian elections. You shouldn’t have to live in Gaza to work out that “open borders, not handouts” are the way forward. Whether subsiding the heavily colonised West Bank, or paying for what Israel destroyed in Gaza, the international community in its approach to the Palestinian people continues to display a lack of consistency, courage, and plain common sense.

Published n the Guardian’s Comment is free.

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