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Emergency Humanitarian Appeals and Gaza’s On-going Destruction: The Case of Failed Accountability and Sustainability

[Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a UNRWA distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. Image: Abed Rahim/ Flash 90] [Palestinians receive their monthly food aid at a UNRWA distribution center in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. Image: Abed Rahim/ Flash 90]

The destruction in Gaza as a result of the most recent Israeli assault has been massive. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the bombing of water networks has reduced potable water by fifty percent. The destruction of housing and productive resources has been equally severe. Approximately 23,000 people were being housed in UNRWA shelters and an additional seven hundred displaced families have sought refuge with distant relatives. At least thirty-six fishing boats were destroyed, leaving 3,600 fishermen incapacitated from their key means of livelihood. The assault’s destruction of agricultural land has affected an estimated two thousand farmers who require urgent food assistance as well as other interventions to rectify damage to livestock and crops. Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has reported that the damages have forced farmers and herders to abandon their lands and have crippled fishing activities in Gaza. More specifically, direct damage to around 17,000 hectares of croplands, including agricultural infrastructure (i.e., greenhouses, irrigation systems, livestock shelters, and fishing boats) have contributed to a devastating crisis in food security and sustainability.

These conditions beg the question that key stakeholders are due to tackle in the coming months: How many times will the international community fund the re-development of Gaza? To this end, there is a power struggle to influence political realities on the ground by stipulating that reconstruction must be premised on the disarming of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while little attention is directed towards Israel’s indiscriminate bombing which has razed agricultural lands and other public structures.

For now the international aid community is busy at work with “emergency appeals” for funds for the re-development of projects to respond to the devastation sustained in Gaza. In the rhetoric of donors, Gaza is represented and discussed as a “humanitarian” crisis. What is not on the donors’ table is a deeper probing of the real roots of the devastation. This would require an acknowledgment that the devastation in Gaza is neither “natural,” nor can it be remedied through humanitarian responses.

The 2014 assault is the third time in recent years that Israel has indiscriminately bombed a largely civilian population, devastating water infrastructure, agriculture lands, public facilities, power grids, and the overall framework upon which ordinary Gazans sustain their daily lives. Thus, analysis must move beyond the normative response of arranging relief and foreground accountability for damages and securing Palestinians’ needs.

Debating Needs: Humanitarianism Versus Development 

In an attempt to redress the approaches in the development of sustainable livelihoods in Gaza, it is important to consider and compare two key terminologies at play: “humanitarianism” and “development.” According to Hugo Slim, “the dichotomy between humanitarianism and development…is not merely unhelpful in practical terms but also serves to diminish our understanding of the shared issues underlying the two discourses.”[1]

Although the concept of “humanitarianism” dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, its contemporary usage traces to the World War II era. That was the period when governments and voluntary agencies mounted initiatives to rebuild and to provide relief efforts across Europe. Soon after, such missions were directed into other areas and regions across the world. Today, the humanitarian paradigm is truly global, and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in this work continue to proliferate.

In keeping with this trend, United Nations agencies continue to expand their mandates.  The work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees now extends beyond protection of refugees, In addition, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank are partnering with NGOs to work on a list of areas that address socio-economic, socio-political, and socio-cultural issues across community needs, youth and women empowerment, good governance and capacity building. This means a broad area of developmental projects have emerged in the last two decades.

In the context of Palestine, NGOs are competing for project-based funding in almost every area of human and infrastructural development. This leaves little to no room for community-based initiatives and volunteerism—which was the spirit during the first Intifada, where community organizers worked hard towards capacity building, outreach, youth, protection and education. Today, even community-based organizations (CBOs) replicate the demands of larger NGOs, including soliciting funds for salaries and operational costs from partners and donors to work within their communities.

Indeed, nowhere is this trend more evident, or more morally bankrupt and corrupt than in the context of Palestine broadly, and Gaza specifically. Consider the 2013 United Nations Development Assistant Framework (UNDAF) report for Palestine, which identifies its priorities around the development of human security and human development. To achieve its outlined goals and mandate, priorities include: economic empowerment, governance, education, health, urban development, and social protection. This tall order of proposed achievements is presented with little consideration towards the actual barriers posed by the on-going Israeli occupation and siege. Further, the emphasis is placed on mainly on Palestinian Authority (PA) institutions, without critical assessment of the gaps in existing local governance mechanisms and the wider global policy influenced by national development plans

Essentially the international community continues to invest in the development and management of a local government through the PA, which is neither representative nor elected by the local population. Moreover, the PA continues to pose long lists of areas and needs without strategic thinking and analytical approaches that represent a framework to de-colonize Palestinian lands. Such strategic thinking would address how to invest in land development and to institute systems to challenge the economic constraints of the Israeli occupation. Instead, the PA continues to work on establishing a security framework to serve the larger interests of the Israeli occupation, investing in neoliberal processes which maintain indebtedness of individuals and key institutions locally.

The bulk of humanitarian financing globally is attributed to a broader group represented by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC). This committee stems from the Organization for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD), and includes the European Union (EU) and other key actors. The legal tools and frameworks related to humanitarian assistance clarify that most aid is closely linked to the source governments’ foreign policy and broader security objectives. According to Anne Le More:

[O]ver the past 15 years, the use of economic or political conditionality by donors has become a dominant feature of the commitment, disbursement and allocation of development funds. This…aid is lined to policy reform and a host of aspirations associated with Western liberal democracy which embraces such attributes as “good” governance, the rule of law, transparency and respect for human rights.[2]

In the context of the Palestinian territories, key decisions and resource allocation trickles through smaller amounts as official aid, making it challenging to actually trace aid spending and accurately identify projects under the broader categories of “humanitarian,” “development,” or “economic cooperation.” In the case of Gaza, donor aid is almost always premised on the “humanitarian” needs, thus ignoring the ongoing cycle of violence and the siege as a root cause of systemic poverty and disempowerment of the local community.

Foreign relief and rebuilding funds are provided in coordination with Israeli policy objectives. Hence, donors participate in maintaining Gaza as a “humanitarian crisis,” rather than pursuing development strategies that would drastically improve living conditions. While the international community is not directly complicit in shaping these conditions, its failures in challenging Israel politically and legally puts donors in a subservient relationship on the ground.

For instance, after “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-2009, thousands of farmers struggled to replant crops during the 2009 planting season. According to the director of the Palestinian Agriculture and Reliefs Committee (PARC), only twenty-five percent of the damaged agricultural land was rehabilitated. The donors’ emergency relief approach fails to address, let alone provide for, long-term feasibility and sustainability.

Revising Strategies for Developing Livelihoods in Gaza

If and when the international community is sincere in its aims to improve the situation in Gaza and promote real human and infrastructural development to serve the needs of the local community, a clear and strong shift in cooperation is required in strategy and implementation. This shift must reconcile the possibility that a long-term ceasefire will not hold, and the likelihood that Israel will not negotiate an end to the on-going siege in Gaza. Both pose key barriers towards sustainable development.

Under these circumstances, local communities will continue to face critical barriers in developing their livelihoods. Even with a measured amount of security and stability, Gaza will remain isolated from the rest of the region, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Further, Israel blocks a laundry list of building and construction materials from entering Gaza, and this perpetuates a human catastrophe on the ground. To this end, previously the UNDP initiated a rehabilitation project in Gaza through the recycling of rubble and debris after the 2005 unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers. After the Israeli assault in 2009, similar approaches were proposed and implemented to use recycled rubbish and debris to re-build structures. This indeed negates the impact of residual radiation in concrete employed to build residences and public structures. Considering that donors will move ahead to discuss strategies to effect the rehabilitation of structures, it is important for discussions to also address how to end the siege and lift the blockade of building and construction materials for rebuilding damaged or destroyed infrastructure.

Stakeholders should ask several key questions: Will international aid continue to be limited to relief and/or humanitarian efforts, or will it include strategies for long-term sustainable development to drastically improve the livelihoods for Palestinians in Gaza? In this vein, stakeholders and donors must orient their priorities and resist or reject Israeli demands that they comply with military and siege policies that create systematic barriers towards long-term developmental assistance.

Donors Have a Stake in Israeli Accountability

In the case of Gaza, if donors wish to continue to engage in processes of development and relief, they should—and can—facilitate a process by which to hold Israel responsible and accountable for the destruction of structures and programs that are funded by them. In addition, by entering a process whereby donors disengage from coordination with Israel, they would shift the burden of responsibility of a civilian population under occupation to the occupying power, which is Israel.

A revision of strategies would allow for a more clear and organic process for stakeholders, which will also bear the promise of longevity in their approaches. A merging of concrete actions on the ground with active participation in boycott-related movements would help to put pressure on Israel to reconsider its siege and its policy of ongoing destruction in Gaza. The current approach of donors that continue to provide public money to rebuild Gaza after every major assault is no longer viable.

Here, it would be most judicious for donors to work towards combined strategies in filing claims for compensation against Israel for damages across public and civil-society structures as a result of indiscriminate bombings. Consider the efforts of the Research Center for Torture (RCT)—a Danish organization that partners with local Gaza institution in areas of mental health and well-being. RCT has been aiding in struggles for compensation after Israeli bombings of 2009 that destroyed their clinics. RCT lobbied the Danish government to request compensation following an impartial investigation into Israeli actions in Gaza. To this end, a European Union-led boycott that includes arms trade with Israel and joint efforts to demand compensation and accountability will help place the necessary pressure on Israel to reconsider its current practices across the Palestinian territories and in specific—Gaza.

[1] Hugo Slim, “Dissolving the Difference between Humanitarianism and Development: The Mixing of a Rights-based Solution,” Development in Practice 10/3-4 (2010): 491-94.

[2] Ann Le More, International Assistance to the Palestinians after Oslo: Political Guilt, Wasted Money (London: Routledge, 2008). 

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