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Conditions on Aid and the Politics of Development

[Crop of image of the West Bank illustrating control of territory under the Oslo Accords. Image from UN OCHA-B’tselem] [Crop of image of the West Bank illustrating control of territory under the Oslo Accords. Image from UN OCHA-B’tselem]

It is mid-August and the heat in the eastern occupied West Bank is oppressive. The air is dry, wind whips up dust, and sand makes its way into the crevices of shoes, pores, and hair. The landscape is covered with settlement agricultural plantations, military outposts, and winding stretches of asphalt. In between this matrix of settlements and outposts are the stretches of makeshift Palestinian encampments – tin shacks and tents that look as though they would fly away with the slightest gust. Goats, camels, and sheep graze nearby while shepherds sit on rocks and sweat in the heat of the afternoon. Next to them are layer upon layer of cement block homes, some painted bright pastel colors, others grey or white. All are separated by narrow dirt paths or broken roads. And in this bleak landscape are children walking along the sides of the highway, next to speeding cars, going home from work or school. 

The West Bank is split between these built-up areas of housing and stretches of encampments. This is a result of the Oslo Accords (1993 and 1995), the interim negotiated agreements premised on the goal of a two-state solution. Many Israeli and Palestinian academics and policy analysts consider the Oslo Accords completely ineffectual means to that end. 

The Oslo Accords remain in force in the occupied Palestinians territories, however, and divide the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C.  Area A is made up of the West Bank’s major population centers, and falls under the Palestinian Authority’s civil and security jurisdiction. In Area B, Palestinians have control over civil affairs only. In both Area A and B, Palestinians are permitted to create permanent infrastructure without Israeli building permits. These Area A and B pockets are separated by large expanses of Area C land. 

Area C is maintained under full Israeli control. In these regions, Palestinians are forbidden from creating permanent structures without a permit from the Israeli Civil Administration. It is here where Palestinians are forced to reside in informal, non-permanent encampments. Area C makes up 62 percent of the entire West Bank. 

From January to July 2012, Israeli occupation forces destroyed 213 Palestinian-owned structures in Area C of the West Bank. These structures include homes, schools, businesses, water cisterns, animal cisterns, solar panels, and even cesspits for sewage. This year alone, 682 Palestinians have been displaced due to infrastructure demolition. In the past ten years, Israeli authorities have demolished more than 2,200 Palestinian residential units, leaving more than 13,000 Palestinians homeless. Sixty percent of demolitions in 2011 alone were in areas close to Jewish settlements.

Demolition orders issued by the Israeli authorities are largely based on the fact that affected structures are built without permits. A September 2012 World Bank report on “The Imperative for Economic Cohesion” in the occupied Palestinian territories states: “[I]n the majority of Palestinian villages in Area C, building permits are almost unattainable and the application for building permits has been characterized by ambiguity, complexity and cost.” With the ability to obtain Israeli Civil Administration permits beyond reach for the majority of Palestinians, many are left with no other choice but to build illegally in order to provide shelter for their families. 

As the same World Bank report on economic cohesion in the occupied territories states, “the entire Palestinian economy is affected by what happens in Area C.” This may seem rather obvious, given that Area C makes up such a large portion of the West Bank and contains some of the most viable agricultural land in Palestine as well as other resources. However, what remains striking in the World Bank report and many other reports on the occupied territories is the gap between analysis and development planning. There is a blatant lack of political will to secure the future of this economically and geographically strategic area of the purported future Palestinian state.

In response to Israeli authorities’ systematic demolition of Palestinian infrastructure and donor fears that deepening colonization is overtaking their proclaimed agenda of a two-state settlement, Area C of the West Bank has become a recent focus of international development efforts. Yet, international donors’ current approach to aid does not provide sustainable solutions to the development crisis in Palestine.

Looking forward, reforms to aid policies must be part of a larger political agenda to support Palestinian rights and an end to the Israeli occupation. This implies an international commitment to Palestinian rights as the only means to lay the foundations of sustainable socio-economic development in Palestine. This framework simply does not yet exist.  

This approach to donor aid, especially in regards to extremely conflicted regions such as Area C, is complex and multi-layered. For some large international donors such as USAID, a strict policy of aid conditionality requires building permits from Israeli authorities to construct any infrastructure for Palestinians in Area C. Requiring Israeli permits effectively weakens Palestinian ownership rights over land by normalizing Israel’s authority over planning and building. Most organizations avoid the question of building permits altogether, instead opting for humanitarian aid or emergency-aid projects that do not require building permits at all. This type of aid includes the distribution of food, school supplies, or first aid kits; it can also provide portable sanitation units and agricultural supplies for farmers or shallow water ponds for irrigation. None, however, provide the type of permanent infrastructure development needed to assert Palestinian ownership of land or livelihoods. Palestinians remain fundamentally unable to control the future of local development in this region.  

The problems run deeper. For those organizations that build in Area C without permits, close to none choose to directly confront Israeli authorities if that infrastructure is demolished. Although 25 percent of demolished Palestinian structures in 2011 were created through donor-funded projects, organizations will not demand accountability on part of the Israeli Civil Administration through reparations or any other forms of compensation. 

There are, however, organizations attempting to change international donors’ complacency in regards to systematic demolitions. Oxfam is an organization that does consistently call for reparations for destroyed infrastructure. There are also other individual cases in which international NGOs have called for compensation. For example, Poland’s foreign ministry recently summoned the Israeli ambassador in order to demand reparations on behalf of Polish Humanitarian Aid for a destroyed water cistern. The majority of donors working in Area C, however, remain silent on this issue. 

Ultimately, both approaches do very little to ensure sustainable development in Area C because of donors’ unwillingness to hold the Israeli Civil Administration, and ultimately the government of Israel, responsible for its flagrant disregard of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people. 

For example, the European Commission (EC) took note of Area C as a region of strategic development for Palestine. The EC recently detailed plans for a new seven million Euro grant to “support Palestinian presence in and development of Area C with the view to accomplish the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state.” The EC pledges to “help the relevant PA ministries to plan and build new infrastructure and enable people to reclaim and rebuild their land there.” The project gives a good impression: building infrastructure, and reclaiming and rebuilding land. 

Here is the catch: the EC states that it must undertake a financial risk of 10-20 percent for demolition orders from Israeli authorities. Therefore, it will “ensure coordination and information vis-à-vis the Israeli authorities” and “extend the implementation period of all infrastructure projects after provisional acceptance from the Israeli authorities has been obtained.” Ultimately, to account for the risk of building in Area C, coordination and approval of Israeli authorities will be needed to continue projects. 

Whether the EC intends for these statements to imply informal communication and coordination, or if it literally means the need for official Israeli permits, the EC still capitulates to Israel’s occupation. 

Recognizing, formally or informally, Israel’s authority over planning and building in Area C delegitimizes Palestinian rights over this land.  More importantly, Palestinians in Area C do not simply need isolated, individual projects to secure their future. Socioeconomic development can only take place when Palestinian authorities and Palestinian communities have credible control and power over planning and building. This includes large-scale infrastructure work such as the establishment of power grids, roads, agricultural roads, sewage networks, and formal water lines. Despite the millions of Euros poured into the region, the Israeli Civil Administration remains in control of development.  

Even in the Council of the European Union’s (EU) May 2012 report regarding the “Council conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process,” the report’s first clause articulates the unequivocal “commitment to a two-state solution.” Yet, on the issue of Area C infrastructure development, the EU insists that it must “engage with the Government of Israel to work out improved mechanisms for the implementation of the donor funded projects.” Although the EU does state that it will continue funding projects in Area C and expects these projects to be “protected for future use,” it remains complicit in the perpetuation of a status-quo system of authority; Israel’s decision-making power in this region remains legitimate and as a consequence, the need to assert Palestinian rights remains a secondary priority.  

Such conditions apply in sixty-two percent of the West Bank – sixty-two percent of the supposed future Palestinian state. Therefore, without a clear donor policy change that deliberately circumvents Israel’s system of building permits and decision-making power, Palestinian rights over property and resources will continue to suffer and the de-development of Palestinian communities will continue unabated. 

In an article written in the context of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the second Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Edward Said wrote, “Now the international community must lay upon Israel the obligation to accept the principle of real, as opposed to fictional, partition, and to accept the principle of limiting Israel's untenable extra-territorial claims…” These words penned in April 2002 are as prescient today as they were then. 

Current approaches to aid in Palestine, such as those that require Israeli building permits in Area C or even informal coordination with Israeli authorities, legitimize and normalize Israel’s “untenable extra-territorial claims,” and undermine the “obligation” of the international community under Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to “respect and ensure respect” of the rights and protections afforded to civilian populations in occupied territory. Such conditions reflect larger policies, which remove any and all accountability on the part of the Israeli government and the international community to uphold their responsibility to respect Palestinian rights and self-determination. 

Donors, including the European Commission, are well aware of the negative consequences of their aid policies in Palestine. Facts on the ground are hard to ignore, especially as illegal outposts, settlements, and checkpoints riddle the region’s landscape with stark reminders that both Israel and Palestine could not be further away from a lasting peace. 

The donor community is in a similarly distant position – to be more precise, “a million miles” away, according to Nadia Hijab, director of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network.  While critical voices in the field certainly exist, they remain marginal. 

Current leadership, unwilling to change its policies despite Israeli intransigence, is shielded and distanced from the social, economic, and political repercussions of the occupation that are felt each day by Palestinian communities.  In the higher echelons of international politics, there are no diplomatic consequences for simply paying lip service to Palestinian human rights. 

The European Union is just one of many international actors that continue to pour money into an aid-dependent Palestine while also enacting policies such as the “EU-Israeli Action Plan,” a document outlining future EU-Israeli economic and political coordination, with, of course, no explicit mention of the occupation. 

Hijab concludes that facts on the ground can only shift in favor of a just and lasting peace when the heavyweights of the international community, including the United States, decide to “take Israel on politically.”

Hijab’s comments echo Edward Said’s conclusions ten years ago:  “There can be no conceivable peace, in my opinion, that does not tackle the real issue: Israel's utter refusal to accept the sovereign existence of a Palestinian people…What boggles the mind is that no official—US, Palestinian, Arab, UN, European, or anyone else—has challenged Israel on this point...”

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