Gas masks: Who’s responsible for the Palestinians?

With the clock ticking down the last minutes before a US-led war against Iraq, Israeli officials have put on hold promises made in court last month to deliver gas masks to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in so-called “Area C” — huge swaths of the West Bank and parts of Gaza that were never handed over to Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords.

They join the rest of the Palestinian population in being denied protection by Israel from possible chemical and biological attack if President Saddam Hussein decides to go out dramatically, all super-guns blazing.

Over the past few months the Israeli government, among the most vocal supporters of an armed confrontation with Iraq, has been frantically distributing masks and injection kits to its own citizens. Israelis, given strict instructions about how to seal a room in their house, have been emptying shops of plastic sheeting and duct tape.

Under international law, Israel, as the occupying power, is as responsible for the welfare of Palestinians in Area C as it is for its own citizens. It has an equal duty to provide them with protection from an Iraqi strike. Israel, however, is in no hurry to incur the extra costs.

In fact, despite the Oslo carve-up of the occupied territories into Areas A, B and C — ranging from full Palestinian control to full Israeli control — the reality (since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reinvaded the West Bank a year ago and began his deep incursions into Gaza many months later) is that almost all of the 3.5 million Palestinians in the territories are once again dependent on Israel for their welfare and safety.

The self-rule mechanisms created by Oslo, which brought Arafat back from his Tunis exile in 1994, have been successfully dismantled under the ruse of “destroying the terrorist infrastructure”.

Today, Arafat is a virtual prisoner in his compound in Ramallah and all the West Bank cities, bar the tiny island of Jericho, have been invaded by the army. The Gaza Strip is a wrecked battlefield, torn apart by a three-way war between the Israeli amy, the remnants of Arafat’s security forces and the ever-more powerful Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas.

Despite aid from Europe and the Arab states, the Palestinian Authority barely functions apart from dispensing meagre “handouts” to teachers and security officers — the few people still employed. The World Bank recently reported that up to 18 people depend on the income of each breadwinner in Gaza.

In fact, the PA has almost no independent powers left: its tax-raising privileges are meaningless among a population penned in by electric fences, curfews and roadblocks that prevent most people from earning a living wage.

Until recently it might have been possible to claim that the international community and an array of human rights groups had stepped in to pick up the pieces. But that argument is no longer sustainable.

Most human rights groups admit their role is limited to little more than ameliorating the suffering of Palestinians in some of the more accessible parts of the territories. Even then, their aid convoys have to battle against red tape, internal closures, curfews and unhelpful soldiers at checkpoints.

Last month the biggest international organisation caring for Palestinians, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRWA), admitted it had run out of money to feed the swelling number of families who have exhausted their private sources of income.

Before the intifada, barely more than 10,000 people in Gaza relied on UNRWA. Now that figure has rocketed to 700,000, more than half the Strip’s population. In total, 1.3 million Palestinians depend on UN handouts. The organisation estimates that it will have emptied its warehouses of food within weeks. It has been appealing for $32 million to carry on with the programme; so far only $1.5 million has been promised.

None of the Western donors can be in any doubt how serious the plight of the Palestinians has grown. The World Bank reports that unemployment is now above 70 percent in parts of the territories and the majority of families are living below the poverty line. Anemia is rife. The UN children’s charity UNICEF has compared rates of malnutrition among children — at one child in four — to that of Zimbabwe and Congo.

So why is the international community standing by as an aid crisis slides into a humanitarian disaster?

The answer is twofold. First, the Palestinians are the first victims — soon to be joined by the Iraqis — of the White House and Israel’s plans for the restructuring of the Middle East and the huge financial burdens required to bring it about.

When the region is about to be plunged into a maelstrom from which it may take years to emerge, and as large donors like the US and Britain pump huge sums of money into the war, the Palestinians are a low priority. Why start rebuilding Palestinian society when Israel appears to have its own plans for “reordering” the region?

The second reason is that most Western governments now consider Israel to be back in charge of the West Bank and assume the same fate will soon befall Gaza. The Oslo accords have been undone: until the White House settles on an Israeli-approved version of its road map, even limited Palestinian self-rule will be a fading memory.

The West is allowing Sharon to walk a fine line. He wanted to take back physical control of the territories but, with the Israeli economy in tatters, he is far from keen to assume financial responsibility for them.

The plight of the Palestinians has grown so dire in the past year that Israel has at least made one concession: it has started transferring some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax receipts it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority under the Olso accords but has been withholding since the outbreak of the intifada.

This “goodwill” gesture by Sharon to ease the worst effects of the economic catastrophe is prompted less by humanitarian concern and more by the fear that if things deteriorate much farther Israel may be forced, under international pressure, to step in and run the territories properly.

The structures exist. Before Arafat’s return nearly a decade ago, the West Bank and Gaza were managed by an Israeli military government known as the Civil Administration. Its role diminished after 1994, but it carried on running Area C and liaising with the PA in the jointly managed Area B.

In the pre-Oslo days, the administration was financed by taxes levied on the Palestinians. But now that the population is penniless, Israel is loath to fulfil its obligations. The army has estimated that resurrecting the Civil Administration in all of the West Bank and Gaza would cost Israel as much as $2 billion a year.

This is exactly what Sharon does not want. His plan has been to keep the Palestinians impoverished through the imposition of a threadbare handout culture — paid for by the international community and at minimal cost to Israel. This way, he believes, ordinary Palestinians can be starved of the energy and will to support the fight to resist his military invasion, as well as the 36-year occupation.

So as the storm clouds build over Baghdad, the Palestinians will have wait out the war, and its aftermath, without food or gas masks.

Jonathan Cook, a British journalist, is Israel-Palestine correspondent for Al-Ahram Weekly and is researching the causes of the intifada among the Arab citizens of Israel.