From hostility to opportunity

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International aid is not new to the Palestinians. Nor is Israel’s problematic attitude toward that aid.

Back in the pre-1967 days, when Israelis contemplated the role of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) in the Palestinian refugee camps across the green line in Gaza and the West Bank, the impression was overwhelmingly negative. UNRWA, it was argued, contributed to Palestinian incitement and violence against Israel, and by its very existence prolonged the existence of the refugee issue, hence extended the conflict. But after the Six-Day War and the beginning of an Israeli occupation that in some forms and areas continues to this day, Israeli attitudes quickly changed. UNRWA, it was discovered, also fed, clothed and educated Palestinians–functions that would have to be born by the Israeli occupier unless it cooperated with the UN organization.

Since then international aid to the Palestinians has only increased. Over the course of the decade that has elapsed since the Oslo process began, the Palestinians have received international development assistance at one of the highest per capita rates in the world. Close to seven billion aid dollars have been committed. And half of this has been provided during the past three and a half years alone, since the current conflict commenced.

Today most of this aid takes the form of emergency humanitarian assistance. According to the World Bank, the ratio between development aid and emergency aid changed from 7:1 before the intifada to 1:5 in 2002. This means that the international community is now essentially devoting its support- -about one billion dollars in 2002–to keeping this generation of Palestinians alive rather than to developing Palestine for future generations and sustaining the peace process.

If the international community were to withdraw its aid tomorrow, the world would look to Israel- -still technically the occupying power–to provide sustenance for Palestinians. Israel would still be obliged to export foodstuffs to Palestine and provide for the Palestinian electricity, water, fuel and communications infrastructures, but neither the aid-givers nor the Palestinian Authority would be able to pay for them. As a result, Israel would be out of pocket by as much as $2 billion annually–unless it chose to allow Palestinians to starve while the world watched.

This would not stop the fighting. Without the international aid, the Palestinian economic situation would get worse, not better. Palestinians would not stop attacking Israelis, and Israel would not stop retaliating for the violence. If anything, the occupation–and the opposition it provokes- -would become more intense. Once again the many Israeli security people and politicians who today consider the international aid community to be a hypercritical source of trouble for Israel, would quickly change their minds.

Now Israel’s disengagement plans provide the aid community with a new and unique opportunity. If Israel does indeed abandon settlements in the Gaza Strip and perhaps in the West Bank, the aid givers have a unique opportunity to petition Israel to turn the homes, farms and infrastructure that it abandons over to them, e.g., to the United Nations and/or the World Bank. In cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, these international institutions can then redistribute these assets to Palestinians in an equitable manner. They can also ensure that Israel receives a "credit" of major proportions, looking to the day when, under a peace agreement, the value of these assets will be deducted from Israeli compensation payments to Palestinian 1948 refugees.

The international aid community should begin by appealing, now, publicly, to the government of Israel, to ensure that those assets are not destroyed or removed if and when the settlers leave–to guarantee that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not yield to the same impulse that led him to destroy the settlements in Sinai when Israel departed in 1982.

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