Why Ending All U.S. Aid to the Palestinians Is a Bad Idea

Badhan village street project WB_Getty Images

Street renewal project in the Occupied West Bank (Getty Images)

In an opinion piece published on the NPR web-site, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, joined by a fellow expert in international relations, try lending some nuance to the issue of U.S. aid — humanitarian, development, and security assistance — to the Palestinian people. The relatively short piece is reproduced in full, below– after my two cents’ worth (unlike the authors, I am not obligated to sound diplomatic).

America’s complete axing of aid has been done incrementally, over many months, the final blow coming just days ago, on February 1st — one day after the featured piece was published. From their professional, foreign policy perspective, the authors explain some of the legal mechanisms involved, why the complete cut is ill-advised, wasteful, destabilizing and counter-productive — and how it can still be reversed, at least in part, by action from the U.S. Congress. A repeated theme is that the across-the-board aid cuts may negatively impact Israel as well. One very direct example: U.S. aid has for years been critical in training and equipping the Palestinian security forces — which serves mainly the interests of Israel, by helping tamp down resistance to The Occupation.

Moreover, even if one wished to punish the Palestinians (for what, I’m not sure), this slashing of all aid apparently goes way beyond both the intent of Congress and what even the Israeli government considers prudent. But in the twisted, zero-sum, winner-take-all worldview of Donald Trump — and the dark angels whispering (shouting?) in his ear — it probably makes a kind of sense: Love Israel, must punish Palestinians. Sadly, it’s all right in line with Trump’s penchant for creating chaos through his impromptu, shoot-from-the-hip, “let’s-see-what-happens” style of governing. (God help us.)

And, if you’re afraid this complete cut-off of aid to the Palestinians may disqualify the U.S., at long last, as an honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian affairs… there’s no need to worry. No, the final nail in that coffin was already forcefully driven home with America’s declaration last year that an undefined, undifferentiated Jerusalem belongs solely to Israel and is its rightful capital.

Generally, I have little argument with what the two authors have to say below. I do object, however, to their use of the term “generous” to characterize the former level of aid to the Palestinians. The amount they cite is $5 billion over the course of 25 years, or an average of $200 million per year, to meet help basic needs including food, healthcare, infrastructure, education and the like. Frankly, by any reasonable measure, that’s pocket change. Consider that $200 million is what America lavishes upon the State of Israel, in 100% military aid — despite Israel’s already burgeoning military, its own thriving weapons/security industry, and its undeclared nukes — every 3 weeks!

I will add one final point to the writers’ informed analysis: This total elimination of American aid to the stateless, occupied Palestinian populace is a petulant and profoundly mean-spirited act. Simply put, it’s not right. Echoing the words of Israeli commentator Gideon Levy, “Shame on you, America”.*

* * *

Opinion: Here’s Why U.S. Aid To Palestinians Needs To Continue

A construction worker saws steel rods at the site of a school that was funded by the United States Agency for International Development in the Palestinian village of al-Jabaa, in the West Bank, on Jan. 22.  (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)

Dana Stroul (@dstroul) is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She served as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee covering the Middle East.

Daniel B. Shapiro (@DanielBShapiro) is a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration.

Is U.S. assistance to the Palestinians an indulgence we can do without? Will its elimination leave Israelis, Palestinians and U.S. interests better off? Unless Congress and the Trump administration act quickly, we are about to find out.

But the whole enterprise is now in jeopardy.

First, the Trump Administration cut the entire fiscal year 2017 economic aid program for the West Bank and Gaza and looks likely to do the same for fiscal 2018. Now the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission, with no money to spend, is on the verge of closing down, leaving ongoing projects uncompleted.

The ATCA’s passage last year prompted Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (who resigned Tuesday) to inform Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a late-December letter that the Palestinian Authority will no longer accept any U.S. assistance. If carried out, that will end U.S. assistance for the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, the deliberately under-the-radar and largely successful U.S. effort to develop these forces and facilitate effective security coordination with Israel in the West Bank.

It will also eliminate the role of the U.S. security coordinator, a three-star general who oversees the training of the security forces and serves as a liaison between Israeli and Palestinian security officials.

Thus far, there has been minimal debate in Washington over the implications of these developments on stability in the West Bank and Gaza and the inextricable link to Israel’s security. Nor has there been a sober reckoning of the very real implications for U.S. influence.

It’s easy to be cavalier about these programs, considering the moribund peace process, Palestinian leaders who lack legitimacy with much of the U.S. public, and bouts of violence. But members of Congress, including many of Israel’s strongest supporters on both sides of the aisle, have long understood their value.

While oversight has been rigorous, funding for Palestinian assistance programs has always flowed with bipartisan support because it was determined to reinforce Israel’s security and provide a measure of U.S. leverage and influence.

This logic was ratified by the support of the Israeli government for these programs. Israeli authorities understood that a breakdown in security, an economic collapse or a humanitarian crisis in the West Bank would place an enormous burden on Israel. A crisis in the West Bank could require the Israel Defense Forces to redeploy personnel from other high-risk areas like the Lebanon border or the Golan Heights.

Moreover, U.S. assistance has sustained lines of contact with Palestinian officials. During flare-ups and crises, this connective tissue has placed the U.S. in a position to defuse situations when direct Israeli-Palestinian engagement was too difficult. U.S. Security Coordinator Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt and his predecessors have at times been the only American officials able to bridge both sides in moments of high tension.

The current funding crisis runs contrary to clearly expressed Congressional intent. Last year, large bipartisan majorities passed the Taylor Force Act, which, by withholding some U.S. aid, aimed to compel the Palestinian Authority to end, among other things, its practice of providing payments to families of convicted Palestinian terrorists. But Congress also voted resoundingly to maintain key elements of assistance, including humanitarian aid, people-to-people programs, medical services and other programming with no direct connection to the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli government, for its part, was clear in its support for the Taylor Force Act’s intent of ending U.S. assistance that could even indirectly subsidize the Palestinian Authority’s payments to terrorists’ families. But there was never Israeli support for curtailing the accounts Congress protected — programs acknowledged to maintain a modicum of stability in the West Bank and prevent a full-scale humanitarian crisis in either the West Bank or Gaza.

In other words, the Taylor Force Act’s passage underscored bipartisan Congressional support for continuing U.S. assistance to the Palestinians. Trump officials, who took an axe to the entire program, citing the Taylor Force Act, have misinterpreted the meaning of the law.

The Israeli national security establishment remains painfully aware that it will face the burden – financial, security, and otherwise – of addressing a full-scale collapse in the West Bank or Gaza if the U.S. steps away or loses all influence and credibility with the Palestinians. And if they lose cooperation with the Palestinian security forces, Israeli security forces will find themselves in the far worse position of needing to directly intervene to confront security threats in Palestinian-populated areas, rather than working through the U.S.-funded multilateral construct.

If all parties remain stuck on the current course, the biggest losers will be innocent Palestinian civilians and Israel. The winners are those benefiting from instability and the opportunity to point to the U.S. as unreliable and in retreat from the Middle East: Hamas, other assorted terrorists and Iran.

To reverse the current course, here are some steps that the administration and Congress should urgently undertake:

Fix the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act

A straightforward legislative fix is low-hanging fruit. Congressional and administration staff recognize that ending U.S. security assistance to the Palestinian security forces only helps adversaries and empowers enemies. In recent days, Israel belatedly added its voice, making clear it wants U.S. aid to the PASF to continue. In fact, Congress and the administration should go further and seize the opportunity in this crisis to permanently protect U.S. security assistance to the Palestinian security forces.

Mitigate damage

Walking away from ongoing USAID projects in the West Bank and Gaza — unfinished roads, incomplete water projects, and piecemeal humanitarian and education programs — is a total waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Such visible reminders of U.S. abandonment will also inflame local sentiment against the United States. Congress should authorize and explicitly appropriate funds to complete these projects, following a thorough review of the status of U.S. programs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Pass positive legislative alternatives

Even if traditional assistance programs remain blocked, there are creative legislative proposals that preserve space for U.S. influence and enjoy bipartisan support. The Palestinian Partnership Fund Act, introduced in the last Congress, promotes economic development by connecting Palestinian entrepreneurs and companies with counterparts in the U.S., Israel, and the Middle East. An International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, long advocated by the nonpartisan Alliance for Middle East Peace, has enjoyed bipartisan support in past Congresses and would promote people-to-people peace-building activities by pooling funding from government and private sources. Now is the time for Congress to approve funding for it.

Urge Israeli clarification on U.S. assistance

Members of Congress naturally seek Israel’s views on the security and economic consequences of completely shutting down U.S. assistance programs to the Palestinians. But during the Trump administration, the answers have been murky. After Israel’s election in April, Congress should urgently seek a clear picture of the new government’s views, as members continue to vote on this much-debated set of issues.

–[END]–

Further recent commentary on this issue:

A recent issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs includes two additional views on the Trump administration’s perverse actions toward the Palestinian people.

*Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy (laden with sarcasm, as is his style) lays it on the line in his Sept. 2018 opinion piece, “Shame on you, America” . He was writing just after the U.S. announced cutting all contributions to UNRWA, a main lifeline for Palestinian refugees in the the Occupied Territories, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (Levy’s article seems to reside behind Haaretz’ impenetrable pay-wall, thus I include the text below):

Shame on you, America

Gideon Levy | Sep. 2, 2018

Now it’s out in the open: America has declared war on the Palestinians. With his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an expert on humanitarian organizations and Palestinian refugees, the great bully Donald Trump decided to end aid to the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees. The official explanation: The business model and fiscal practices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency made it an “irredeemably flawed operation.”

Trump and his son-in-law, the keepers of the seal of good government, found that the agency isn’t properly run. The annual U.S. contribution of $360 million will end. Even in Israel, which rejoices at every Palestinian calamity and is positive that everything is a zero-sum game, people think the state’s greatest friend of all time went a little overboard.

The new America treats small slights and major crimes equally. Allocations to U.S. aid organizations operating in the territories, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, have been cut by $200 million. Washington decided to hit the Palestinians in the wallet. Of all the huge sums going to aid corrupt regimes, of all the trillions spent on pointless wars and mass killing, it’s the aid to the Jabalya refugee camp that’s mismanaged and has to stop. The Palestinians, blackmailing sons of blackmailers, no longer deserve it because of the business model. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad; the price of the joke will be paid from Chatila to Rafah [Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Gaza, respectively].

In the next decade, the United States is set to pour $38 billion into Israel, among the most developed countries on the planet with one of the best equipped armies in the world — which of course follow the right business model. Not a single dollar can be cut. Humanitarian aid to a needy country that doesn’t waste a single cent.

Israel deserves this terrifying aid; it complies with every resolution passed by international institutions, a model of morality that obeys every U.S. recommendation that it withdraw from the territories and end the occupation. It’s worthwhile for America to pay for all its whims and wars. It greatly adds to its global prestige.

This year, America will spend $46 billion in Afghanistan, on a war it can’t get enough of. It will pour $13 billion into Iraq, long after one of the most foolish wars ever ended.

Wars? The one in Afghanistan cost America $753 billion, the one in Iraq $770 billion, according to the Pentagon. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the actual cost was $1.7 trillion. Two unnecessary wars that caused the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but the money spent on them conformed with a proper business model. The same for the wars in Syria and Yemen.

Only the UN relief agency for the Palestinians is improperly run. The leader of the free world, the greatest warmonger since World War II, cuts flour for Yarmouk and cooking oil for Bureij, because the Palestinians overestimate refugee numbers.

Behind all this, of course, is a much broader truth. UNRWA could hire Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, and comply with Scandinavian management standards, but nothing would make a difference. Israel long ago declared war on the agency, America followed it as usual, all with the aim of removing the refugee issue from the agenda. Anyone familiar with the conditions in the refugee camps knows just how dependent their inhabitants are on the UN agency. There might be some waste, certainly there are freeloaders, reform is absolutely necessary, but UNRWA provides basic humanitarian assistance. Without it there are no schools, clinics and food in the camps. America owes an indirect debt to the people there; it funds and supports the Israeli occupation, and it has never lifted a finger to reach a genuine solution to their suffering.

But the new America has lost its shame, too; it no longer even wants to pretend to be the honest broker, or take care of the world’s needy, as its position obliges it to do. Let us say, then, shame on you, America.

UPDATE /  April 2019

U.S. Aid Agency Is Preparing To Lay Off Most Local Staff For Palestinian Projects

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This entry was posted in Gaza, Occupied Territories, Palestinian Authority, Palestinians, Politics, The Occupation, U.S. Foreign Policy, West Bank and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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