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Calls to Increase Humanitarian Aid to Palestinians Win Broad Support

May 7, 2002
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At a time when few initiatives related to the Middle East win universal support, an increase in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians is winning strong backing from Israel, the Arab world and the United States.

In the last few years, the idea of cutting U.S. assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip once was seen as a way of punishing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, but views have changed.

Now, most agree that increasing aid that benefits Palestinian people — and doesn’t go to the Palestinian Authority — is an essential move toward achieving a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Even many American Jewish leaders, who have advocated sanctions against Arafat and the P.A. leadership, concede the need for humanitarian aid.

“Palestinian people are real live people that you have to relate with,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “We are very concerned about their humanitarian needs.”

But Jewish leaders’ support is hesitant, noting that aid must go for its intended humanitarian purposes, and not to support the Palestinian Authority.

“AIPAC would support increased humanitarian aid if it can be truly guaranteed to benefit the Palestinian people, rather than be siphoned off through corruption and used to rebuild refugee camps that are simply launching pads for terrorism,” said Josh Block, AIPAC’s press secretary.

Israeli officials have concurred.

This change of direction comes as the Bush administration has made humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians a priority, and expressed its desire to increase the annual amount.

“As we work to improve the security situation in the region, all of us must step up our efforts to bring humanitarian relief and economic assistance to the Palestinian people,” President Bush said recently.

The United States already provides some $75 million to the West Bank and Gaza annually.

Other international organizations, such as the World Bank, European Union and Arab states, give funds directly to the Palestinian Authority. Because of the P.A.’s rampant corruption, however, Congress outlaws direct funding to the Palestinian Authority and requires that the money be distributed through the United States Agency for International Development.

USAID distributes the funds to contractors and other service providers in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as international programs.

Questions have been raised about whether USAID funds in fact end up with the Palestinian leadership, but most of the funds are believed to go to legitimate humanitarian causes, including water resource development and health care.

Jewish organizations quietly have supported the programs for years. An official with one Jewish organization said Jewish lobbying groups now are more enthusiastic about supporting aid, but are unsure it will get to the right places.

At an international donors conference in April, the United States pledged an additional $30 million in aid, part of $1.2 billion the conference earmarked for the West Bank and Gaza.

The additional money, taken out of the USAID program and the State Department’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Account, does not require congressional approval.

But lawmakers are considering legislation that would raise the amount of humanitarian aid even more. Few details have emerged about the legislation being considered by leaders of the House International Relations Committee.

Analysts say giving humanitarian aid to the Palestinians has several benefits. It reinforces the idea that the United States is intent on a solution that aids the Palestinians, and counters the Arab perception that the United States blindly supports Israel. It also is seen as giving the Arab world and the European Union an important role in the peace process.

“It’s very important that there be a meaningful and robust program of assistance that rebuilds, or helps rebuild, the Palestinian economy that has been devastated because of the events of the last 18 months,” said David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

Speaking Monday at the Anti-Defamation League’s leadership conference, Satterfield said it was the United States’ goal to “do it better this time” than when the Palestinian Authority was formed, creating “transparency, accountability and democracy” in a future Palestinian state.

Some analysts believe that if the Palestinian economy improved, Palestinians would be less interested in violence and would press their leadership toward the negotiating table.

However, previous attempts by Israel and the international community to bolster the Palestinian economy did not prevent the Palestinians from choosing violence over peace talks.

Still, advocates argue that increasing U.S. aid would give the United States a larger stake in the building of a Palestinian infrastructure and help shape the political structure that would follow, including the makeup of financial and security organizations.

“If you have a more streamlined chain of command with transparent budgets and operational procedures, it is easier to stop organizations from participating in terrorist” activities, said Lewis Roth, assistant director of Americans for Peace Now.

But some American Jewish leaders worry that the money may inadvertently fall into the wrong hands. Money is fungible, they say.

For example, Palestinian refugee camps, which largely are funded by the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency, are centers of Palestinian terrorism.

“People are skeptical because of past corruption,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Palestinian textbooks, paid for by the United States and European Union, label Israel as “Palestine” and drip with anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials and Jewish leaders who support plans for increased aid say they are concerned that it will be given in a lump sum, instead of in return for Palestinian performance against terrorism.

U.S. lawmakers say their aid bill would require the new disbursements to be within the context of a peace process.

Support for additional aid, however, would contradict one piece of legislation under consideration. Rep. Cantor’s bill would cut off all aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying Arafat should be forced to use Palestinian funds to the benefit of his people rather than for terrorism.

“When we send U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Palestinian Authority through USAID, that money goes to the benefit of Mr. Arafat,” Cantor said. “That money will be used, and will be money Mr. Arafat no longer has to come up with.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, said American Jewish organizations that support additional aid to the Palestinians are going against the will of American Jewry.

“It is wrong to be providing any aid to a people that supports the murder of Jews,” Klein said. “This is a people that has overtly supported the murder of Jews and is very much in sync with the P.A. agenda.”

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