Donors help keep Palestinians in cages

Development aid to the Palestinian Authority has only entrenched Israel’s occupation and colonization.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

“Israel besieges us, puts us in cantons — in cages — and the international community is feeding us in these cages. It’s anything but developmental and it’s helping Israel’s colonization, ethnic cleansing and dispossession,” Dr. Samia Botmeh said, as she sat in her office in the Center for Development Studies (CDS) at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Despite the massive amounts of development aid that have been poured into the West Bank, the productive capacity of the Palestinian economy — measured by examining the agricultural and manufacturing sectors — is half that of 1994, and accounts for no more than 12 percent of employment. While the World Bank and Palestinian Authority boast an 8 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP), real per capita income is still 8.4 percent lower than what it was in 1999, signifying that the GDP growth is not reflective of income growth for the average Palestinian.

Egypt provides an elucidative comparison. Two decades of serious neo-liberal reforms produced a GDP growth in Egypt that was similarly applauded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF): between 2006 and 2008, GDP grew 7 percent and there was a 4.6 percent spike in 2009 alone. However, as was made stunningly clear at the end of January, the country’s GDP growth had not trickled down to the majority of the people: unemployment had actually increased and 40 percent of the population lived on less than two dollars per day.

With former IMF representative Salam Fayyad at the helm since 2007, the PA has adopted the strategy of neo-liberal “good governance” as its framework for the state-building project. As post-colonial states have done in the past, the PA has sought to create an environment conducive for efficient and free-flowing markets by privatizing public services, emphasizing private property rights and reducing corruption. This agenda — state-building through neo-liberal policies — is most patently set forth in a PA program titled “Ending the Occupation, Establishing a State.”

As Mustaq H. Khan, an economics professor at London’s School of Oriental and Afrian Studies, pointed out in a lecture in Ramallah last winter, the injection of development aid into Palestine has deceptively flattered the PA’s good governance program, leading onlookers and promoters such as the IMF and World Bank to attribute the boost in GDP to a successful market economy (“Post-Oslo State-Building Strategies and their Limitation,” 1 December 2010 [PDF]).

There is still a stark contrast between the perceived improvement in the Palestinian economy and the actual standard of living for the majority of Palestinians. Development aid — which comprises roughly 40 percent of Palestine’s GDP — has been complicit in obscuring economic reality and in some cases truncating Palestine’s struggle for national liberation.

In June 2011, Birzeit University held a conference at which activists and academics spoke with donors and a representative from the PA on the failures of development, as well as the troubling role development aid plays in Palestine’s national movement.

“The framework of development is extremely unrealistic and problematic,” Dr. Samia Botmeh told The Electronic Intifada. The framework under scrutiny at Birzeit was the United Nations Development Programme’s Conflict-Related Development Analysis (CDA), which seeks to maximize the impact of development aid in conflict zones.

Botmeh added that the current international framework for assessing development aid in the West Bank treats the Israeli-occupied region either as a conflict zone or a post-colonial zone. “This is completely unrealistic because we are not in a conflict, we are in a colonization process,” she said.

The conference took place after the university’s Center for Development Studies concluded a project commissioned by the UNDP that examined how development funds could be better allocated in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip amid Israel’s continued occupation.

Because the CDA framework attempts to implement “development” projects while avoiding any political position, the study found that it implicitly assumes both parties have a reason to compromise. This fundamentally flawed approach refuses to acknowledge — and therefore address — the stark power imbalance that allows Israel to remain intransigent.

Realizing that reallocating funds would not address the fundamental hindrances to achieving economic self-determination through development in Palestine, the center articulated what development should look like in the context of an active colonization process. “Development should be about more than helping people survive; it should be about ending colonization,” Botmeh explained.

The Center for Development Studies’ critique shows how development fails to achieve much of anything tangible for Palestinians, and — even more ominously — serves to fortify Israel’s occupation and further annexation of land.

Development confined to “state-building”

After the implementation of policies dictated by the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-1990s, international aid to Palestine took a turn toward development. Previously, aid to Palestine was earmarked for “humanitarian” purposes such as UN operations and charity. With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a transitional government, development aid was ostensibly intended to promote an independent economy that would facilitate a smooth transition to a Palestinian state.

After 18 years of an ostensible peace process — of which the agency of the Palestinian national liberation struggle has been confined to a “state-building” project by the PA and Israel — Palestinians’ standards of living have decreased, while inequality has increased.

Botmeh believes that the underlying assumption of this development aid is that it is being funnelled into a post-colonial state and that Israel has an intention to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These assumptions, blatantly oblivious to any political reality, have allowed development aid to reinforce Israel’s colonization through the continued degradation of Palestine’s territorial contiguity and the ongoing depopulation of Area C — more than 60 percent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, that is under full Israeli military control.

Under the Oslo accords, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip were carved up into areas A, B and C, the last of which is administered and controlled by the Israeli government and its military. Israel has declared three-quarters of the land as “closed military zones” or nature reserves, and therefore “off-limits” to Palestinians. Approximately 40,000 Palestinians live in Area C.

The 1999 deadline for the termination of the West Bank’s geographic stratification into Areas A, B and C has long passed. Far from assisting in the formation of a viable state, development aid has served to entrench the partitioning of the land.

Peter Lundberg, a representative of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, confirms these faults in the current development paradigm in Palestine. Speaking from the perspective of an international donor, Lundberg excoriated the complicity of development aid in fragmenting Palestinians by only working in Area A due to Israeli restrictions in Area C.

“Donors and the PA have been too focused on state-building, which is important, but they are going to lose critical parts of the land,” Lundberg said. “Development should help Palestinians stay on their land; too many have left [their land in] Area C.”

Because implementing projects in Israeli-controlled Area C are logistically burdensome and in many cases impossible, donors are inclined to contribute to projects in Area A.

According to Lundberg’s statistics, there has been an exodus of Palestinians from Area C mostly due to the impossible living conditions Israel has created and the predatory nature of surrounding settlements. Israel does not allow communities to be connected to sources of water or electricity and refuses nearly every request for a building permit, thus leading to the destruction of water-collecting devices, schools and homes. In contrast, settlements sitting next to these Palestinian villages are afforded free-running water, electricity, roads and expanding infrastructure.

In 1967 there were approximately 200,000 Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley, which is designated Area C, except for the Palestinian city of Jericho. Today, there are only 56,000, 40,000 of whom live in Jericho (in Area A), according to statistics from the international aid agency Save the Children.

The devastating picture that these statistics reveal is that donors have been complicit in aiding Israel’s process of cantonizing the West Bank into the 18 percent that comprises Area A. By doing so they have helped to surrender the majority of the West Bank’s land and agriculture — which could form the basis of a genuine self-sustainable Palestinian economy and state — to Israel’s control.

Neo-liberalism undermining Palestinian rights for self-determination

Raja Khalidi, a senior economist with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has written that the development enterprise — representing $1.5 billion a year — is taking place inside territories that have been tagged by the World Bank, European Union, IMF and United States as a site for expanding a neo-liberal project (see “Neoliberalism as Liberation: The Statehood Program and the Remaking of the Palestinian National Movement,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 40, no. 2, Winter 2011).

In the PA’s neo-liberal paradigm — as enshrined in the “Palestinian Reform and Development Plan” of 2008-10 and “Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State” — economic growth is promised as a consolation for occupation rather than a strategy to resist it.

Speaking at the conference, Khalidi remarked on the absurdity of such an agenda in the context of an occupation that ultimately determines Palestine’s economy. “For the last three years, the PA has been routing out internal obstacles to state-building, while the PA has no structure to tackle external obstacles,” he said.

Moreover, without sovereignty, genuine economic growth is out of reach. Khalidi explained that the PA is not only unable to counteract Israel’s aggressive policies of colonization but it also does not have the ability to exercise control over Palestine’s macro-economic policies — such as its own currency and control over interest or exchange rates.

Development aid has long been faulted for its inadvertent assistance in sustaining the occupation by reducing its humanitarian impact and thus making it more palatable. However, Omar Barghouti, a leading figure of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, revealed the disingenuous nature of international development aid.

“Development exudes complicity in colonialism; it’s intentional and it’s complicit — ignorance is not an excuse,” he said at the conference.

Barghouti proffered several examples of countries throwing some money at the cause of development in Palestine while concurrently supporting projects or companies that actively undermine Palestinian sovereignty.

Veolia, a French transportation corporation that according to Barghouti is mostly owned by the state, is currently building Jerusalem’s new light rail system. The Jerusalem light rail connects West Jerusalem to illegal settlement blocs in occupied East Jerusalem. Despite targeted pressure on Veolia to withdraw from the light rail project — part of a global BDS campaign that has cost the company up to $10 billion, according to Barghouti — the company and by extension France have held onto their contract with Israel.

Restoring class struggle to the national liberation struggle

Adam Hanieh, a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, situates development aid in the longer arc of Israel’s colonization of the land through systematic fragmentation of the Palestinian people and nation. In his lecture at Birzeit, Hanieh restored the importance of class struggle to the goal of national liberation and exposed development aid as working against Palestinian unity undivided by wealth or class, against the occupation.

“Sixty-three years of colonization have seen the division, fragmentation and fracturing of the Palestinian people. Development must confront this fragmentation, not aid it,” Hanieh explained to the audience.

Illustrating how neo-liberalism has encouraged the notion that the solutions to problems are individual in nature rather than collective, Hanieh stressed that much of the “development” one sees arising in the West Bank benefits Israeli business. For example, consumption in Ramallah’s flourishing restaurant and café culture is mostly funded by this development aid — and in turn sustains the importation of Israeli products. Poignantly, this new consumer class — enabled by development aid — creates one more isolated stratum of Palestinian society.

All this continues against the backdrop of the regional popular uprisings against, among other things, neo-liberal policies. These uprisings showcase an exemplary shaking off of dictators and the present world order and the inspiring potential of class struggle.

If development aid programmes set freedom — rather than the introduction of a neo-liberal state — as their principal objective for Palestinians, then they may begin to counter the 63-year process of confiscation and colonization. Otherwise, they will be offering that process a helping hand.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank. She can be reached at charlottesilver A T gmail D O T com.