The Palestinian-Israeli conflict could very well be the most polarizing and politicized issue in the Middle East. It would seem everyone has an opinion on what is right or wrong. Every dollar in foreign aid sent to the West Bank and Gaza is heavily scrutinized for the political message it sends. Recent months have yet again seen the collapse of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The resulting fallout from this has led the two main parties, Fatah (who control the western-backed Palestinian Authority government in the Occupied West Bank Territories) and Hamas (who control the Gaza Strip), to “reconcile” and form a new “Unity Government”. Though past reconciliation deals between the two have failed to last, the United States Congress would like to halt aid to the Palestinians as a result of this unity deal. This, no doubt, is a move designed to punish Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for cooperating with his counterparts in Gaza: who are still classified as a terrorist group by the United States.
All federal spending made by the United States is administered by Congress, giving them control over all aid money being distributed, which must be approved in the annual budget. The total for US Foreign aid (to over a hundred countries) amounts too less then 1% of the Federal Budget and clocks in around $40 billion for 2014. Despite this relative “drop in the bucket” Congress is convinced that the continued funding of Palestinian projects would contribute negatively to the region, especially in light of the recent peace talk collapse. It is a very well known fact the United States has been Israel’s biggest supporter, so the fact this is being discussed should come as really no surprise. Special interest groups and politicians have to balance the “security” related spending for Israel with the “Humanitarian” aid to Palestine. This call for suspending aid is not some drastic reaction to some horrible political or humanitarian shift, it’s simply typical Washington political rhetoric: hollow and designed to push someone’s agenda forward.
Since the 1990’s the aid to the Palestinians has come to total $ 5 billion, with around $440 million given in 2013 alone. This money is parceled out through direct and indirect financial assistance. The aid has two functions, 1) to promote US interests in the region and 2) as a symbolic act of good faith. Direct aid is provided through direct financial transactions (subject to a predetermined set of rules) and the sale of military equipment. This accounts for around $200-$300 million of the annual aid budget for Palestine and is contributed to a special Palestinian Authority’s account, allowing them to maintain the government and ensure there’s not a spending shortage, which could lead to a destabilization of the Occupied Territories and an increase in violence. This account is overseen by the United States; the money does not leave until its use has been approved. The United States has full financial control and approval over all funds withdrawn from the Palestinian Authority’s account. This helps to ensure the status quo with Israel remains the same and that the Palestinian Authority works with Israel on diplomatic and military related matters. By placing the administration and oversight (on spending matters not related to national security) with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) it centralizes the political and humanitarian network. In addition to the direct aid provided in the form of a cash sum, the United States also provides indirect aid to the Palestinians.
Indirect aid according to USAID is designed to “end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity” through partnerships. These partnerships are typically economic, educational, and humanitarian based projects, with the goals ranging from the development of democracy & governance, economic development, education & social services, health, humanitarian assistance, and peace & security. One major recipient for indirect aid from the United States is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) who seek to provide basic food, shelter, education, and medical care needs. In 2013 the United States dispersed over $130 million to the UNRWA bringing their total contributions (since the agency’s founding in 1950) to $4.65 billion, making them the agency’s largest single contributor. These services, especially in the Gaza Strip and refugee camps throughout the Occupied Territories, seek to alleviate much of the burden placed on the Palestinian government to provide basic necessities. With a population of 4 million the Palestinian Territories receive the most per-capita aid of any country the United States provides for.
Clearly the United States has committed a lot of resources to both the Palestinian and Israeli people. This call to defund the Palestinians is based entirely on the melding of Hamas and Fatah in the unity government, seen as a threat by Israel. Political pressure from the Israeli’s and the United States continued classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization provide decent political shielding from the ensuing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the new government. In light of Hamas’s past of refusals to recognize Israel as a legitimate state and their militant action, Congress feels they are now free of any preexisting obligations. This is based on the classic American law: “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. It’s this law that has allowed them to challenge the legitimacy of the new government while shirking their obligations to the Palestinians. They have agreed to this funding based on a set of strict rules and regulations regarding policies towards Israel and how aid is spent. But since they are already providing this funding, under the guise of humanitarian aid, in many ways they have obligated themselves to future support.
Obviously for there to be any chance of a two-state solution concessions must be made with both sides. This is difficult for the United States, especially in light of Hamas’s past refusals to recognize Israel as a legitimate state, which is why the United States wants to be at the forefront of any negotiations, helping to promote their own interests in the region. At this stage in the development of the new unity government an unwillingness to cooperate on the part of the United States is a potentially dangerous political move. It signals a vote of no confidence in the Palestinian people’s ability to govern. To the Palestinians it says, “We’ve picked a side” and continues to engender anti-American sentiment in the region, which seems to exist solely based on the continued support of Israel.
Once you freeze funds and stop providing aid, the Palestinians themselves are under no obligation to follow through with their side of the terms. It could help to re-legitimize Hamas’s platform which they have been able to maintain through their political and geographic isolation. Congress is right then to assume past boycotts of Hamas have only helped strengthen the group’s hold on Gaza. It has allowed the Islamists to construct an “us vs them” narrative, or rather “them vs the West”. There’s nothing particularly new about this concept, except this narrative could become much more widespread outside of the Gaza Strip, bolstering anti-American and Israeli sentiments in the Occupied territories and throughout the region as a whole.
Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the Palestinians need financial assistance. If they are expected to continue to develop, economically and politically, why would the United States jeopardize regional stability and throw away billions of dollars in investments? The best thing that Congress can do to promote continued talks is maintain the status quo with regards to aid. Pulling aid will not only alienate the United States further in the Middle East but it will destroy a developing economy. It shouldn’t matter if Fatah and Hamas have aligned themselves politically. It is important to remember that first and foremost these are political parties, which had or have militant wings. This doesn’t automatically make any member of either party a terrorist and using this classification to abdicate a moral and political responsibility could prove detrimental to the long-term investment the United States has made in the Palestinian people.