September 2011: Humanitarian aid for Palestinians shouldn’t be necessary

Op-ed published  September 22, 2011 in The Guardian

The huge amount of money spent on aid wouldn’t be needed if the international community pressed Israel to lift the blockade and respect international law, and pushed for a political solution

As Friday’s expected Palestinian bid for UN membership draws closer, an overlooked issue is the untenable situation of the Palestinian population, who are subjected to collective poverty, misery and desperation, and the role that international humanitarian assistance plays in this.

Several years of experience in the Middle East and of closely following the humanitarian crisis in Palestine have convinced me that humanitarian aid would be unnecessary if a political solution were put in place, and it may even be perpetuating this manufactured crisis.

Many humanitarian workers we have interviewed in the context of the Humanitarian Response Index in recent years have voiced concerns that international humanitarian assistance is simply serving as a sticking plaster to avert the absolute collapse of living conditions in Palestine as the political crisis deepens. The more than $7.2bn (Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2011) injected between 2000 and 2009 seems to have provided an excuse for the international community to avoid fully committing to establishing a just political resolution.

A political resolution is the only option that can solve this artificial crisis of protection, human rights and human dignity violations. But year after year we have seen how political decisions, or the lack thereof, undo humanitarian efforts. It is tragic that the main players, which include the Quartet (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia), are the most generous humanitarian donors while at the same time failing to achieve the political progress that would make their generosity needless.

Meanwhile, things are made worse by restrictions applied by Israel, both for Palestinians and the humanitarian agencies operating there.

Palestine is one of the most complex aid environments for humanitarian agencies, which need to overcome the obstacles and limitations imposed by the Israeli authorities. These include the restrictions on the movement of goods and people between zones and the bureaucratic procedures they entail, as well as the no-contact policy with Hamas stipulated by key donors. As a result, Palestine is a challenging and expensive environment to operate in. As one interviewee said, the no-contact policy “undermines the whole humanitarian response: creating parallel networks, wasting money, in addition to not using available services and resources”.

Another example of the multiple restrictions are the procedures demanded by the Israelis for the delivery of food supplies to Gaza, which cost the World Food Programme and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) $4m per year.

In this context, humanitarian actors say donors are simply not doing enough. Many of the humanitarian organisations we met complained of donor passiveness in advocating for access and of their acceptance of additional operational costs – when at the same time they agreed that the Israeli blockade and occupation were the main obstacles to restoring a minimal level of livelihood and human dignity to the Palestinians.

If the situation seems bad for aid agencies, consider the plight of the Palestinians, who have to endure the Israeli barrier and numerous closures; the arbitrary opening and closing of checkpoints, as well as the random acceptance of the differentiated passes and permits; settlement expansion; forced evictions; and demolitions across the occupied territories. The humanitarian crisis this causes, along with the constant fear of violence, has led to failing hopes and desperation.

At a time when many donor governments are looking to maximise the results and value of their funding, the situation in Palestine shows just how far the response is from achieving efficiency, much less impact. The commitment of one donor to keep constructing what the Israeli authorities keep demolishing on account of a lack of valid building permits illustrates this game of doing, undoing and redoing.

The huge amount of money spent on humanitarian assistance would be unnecessary if the international community pressured Israeli authorities to lift the blockade, respect international humanitarian law, and allow full access to humanitarian aid and recovery.

As the political manoeuvring proceeds, there are ways to ameliorate the suffering of Palestinians. Donors can start by not placing political conditions on their assistance and challenging every party, both Israeli and Palestinian, that delays, controls or misuses aid. They should also avoid short-term funding cycles and grant humanitarian organisations the flexibility they need to implement long-term programmes to meet long-standing needs.

But even if NGOs, the UN and donor agencies provided an exemplary response – and they should deploy all efforts to this end – the solution to the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories remains political. The most efficient humanitarian response will always fall short if it continues to depend on the interests of Israel and the convenience of donor capitals.

The international community, particularly the main humanitarian donor governments, must understand that their approach of providing large sums of money without calling for the end of the blockade and occupation is not the best way to help the Palestinians – in reality, it allows the protraction of the humanitarian crisis.

The current period is critical. Donors need to back the agencies they fund with a real commitment to building a Palestinian state, something they all agree to. The absence of a solution will lead to more violence, a deeper humanitarian crisis and further instability, none of which will benefit the Palestinians or the Israelis.