Book review: How aid hurt Palestine

26 October 2009

From 1994 — shortly after the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed — to 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, international donors gave $8 billion in aid to the Palestinians, making them one of the most subsidized people on Earth. This aid ostensibly had three purposes: to support the peace process leading to a two-state solution, to foster economic and social development, and to promote institution-building. Yet, many years and billions of dollars later, Palestinians are poorer and further from statehood than ever before, and their dysfunctional national institutions face an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy.

In her first monograph, international relations specialist Anne Le More seeks to answer a straightforward question that ought to be of profound import to scholars, activists and decision makers: how and why did this happen? Along the way, International Assistance to the Palestinians after Oslo, the first in Routledge’s Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict series, provides an important critique of the belief that reconstruction, development and humanitarian aid form essential counterparts to political processes aimed at resolving longstanding violent conflicts. Le More’s study focuses solely on the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the questions it poses, however, could offer a template for exploring the extent to which “aid” has become the means to repackage Western military occupation and dependency as “state-building” and “independence” in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo.

In the Palestinian case, aid functioned not as a catalyst but as a substitute for politics. Donor policies were driven not by Palestinian needs as much as by dynamics among donors, on the one hand, and between donors and Israel, on the other. Thus, aid to the Palestinians was only ever marginally about the Palestinians themselves. As the prospects for achieving a political settlement receded, especially after Israel escalated its violent repression of the intifada after 2000, donors failed to adjust their policies in light of developments on the ground — especially Israel’s fragmentation and isolation of the occupied territories. Rather, “[s]upporting the ‘peace process’ had become the dominant, immovable paradigm, to the point of tautology” (14), which meant an ever-greater focus on providing short-term emergency aid and chasing the latest ephemeral diplomatic “game in town” (14). Excluded from a political role by Israel and the United States, the European Union (EU) — the largest aid donor — hoped “that the provision of assistance and funds to the Palestinians would in turn give donors ammunition to influence American unilateral mediation efforts and Israeli policies on the ground” (173). But “courting the Americans and appeasing Israel” (173) did not have the desired effect. Instead, financial aid became a “fig leaf” (13) for the absence of a political process to resolve the underlying causes of conflict; it subsidized Israeli occupation and colonization, and donors knowingly bankrolled a Palestinian regime that was “authoritarian, unaccountable and repressive” (169) — and completely dependent on subsidies.

Le More does a masterful job placing ostensibly technocratic donor mechanisms in political context (brief appendices providing flowcharts, financial summaries and abbreviations are welcome companions, though maps, reproduced from B’Tselem, would be more useful if the labels could be read with the naked eye). She analyzes how donors’ discourses obscured and undermined international humanitarian law (IHL) and examines how prolonged aid in the context of military occupation may itself have violated and materially contributed to Israeli violations of IHL. Many of the roots of the recent intra-Palestinian split can be traced to donor policies designed specifically to support Fatah and its leaders at the expense of all other Palestinian factions, not least among them Hamas. Donors viewed financial enticement — shrouded in a benign technocratic and developmental discourse — as a means to shift the Palestinian national movement from the goal of liberation toward a role as security subcontractor for Israel, conceding key Palestinian demands.

Many of Le More’s criticisms of the post-Oslo dispensation are familiar. But her account of the role of donor aid in creating the current, disastrous situation is original, drawing on extensive analysis of documents produced by donor bureaucracies and interviews with dozens of American, European, UN and other officials who ran them, albeit with their confidentiality protected.

A recurring theme in current polemical and academic discourses is that the Palestinians themselves — and to a much lesser extent Israel (“the parties”) — are to blame for the failure of Palestinian state-building, with external actors posing as well-intentioned but largely powerless bystanders. Claims that the United States is an “honest broker” are more transparent given that country’s massive military and economic subsidies to Israel. But for many years, the EU states, Canada and Norway — the main donors to the Palestinians — posed as counterweights, even allies, of the Palestinians. One conclusion we may draw from Le More’s important study is that by effectively enabling Israeli colonization, so-called development aid proved over the long term no less destructive to the Palestinians than the weapons sent to Israel by the United States.

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006). This review originally appeared in The Journal of Palestine Studies, Issue 151, Volume 38, Spring 2009, and is republished with the author’s permission.

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