Pre-‘Arab Spring’ Palestinian perceptions on foreign aid and conditionality

In light of the ‘new’ elements in EU (aid) policies, it is worthwhile to recall Palestinian views on international assistance, support, participation, influence and/or intervention (recorded in 2010). It must be emphasized, that the cited qualitative interviews were conducted before the ‘official’ beginning of the Arab Spring. Foreign aid aimed at improving the Palestinian socio–economic conditions and building institutional system of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Its utmost objective has been supporting the Oslo Peace Process and any related Israeli-Palestinian efforts for returning to the negotiation table in the past decade. They have become open and visible in the Palestinian case since 2006 when the donor community (the Quartet) set three infamous conditions in exchange for accepting the results of the parliamentary elections [i]. However, donors provided foreign aid, in form of official development assistance and humanitarian aid for getting something back since the early 1990a: to see their agendas and conditions to be met (in general: Duffield 2001; in the Palestinian case: Nakhleh 2004; Said 2005; Le More 2008; Taghdisi-Rad 2011; Paragi 2012b).

Foreign aid, understood as ‘symbolic power politics between donor and recipient’ (cf. an earlier post) was much less symbolic in the minds of Palestinian recipients than it appeared to be in theory. It was simply seen as non-symbolic and evident means of control. Neither was it widely interpreted as being ‘innocent’ nor ‘altruistic’ gift provided without expectations to return. Donors’ support for the peace process was primarily perceived as something which aimed at asserting their own interests, let this interest mean altruistic support for a just cause or a less altruistic move to achieve foreign policy goals. Conditions were set to ensure Palestinian cooperation needed to meet these objectives. Palestinians, by accepting foreign aid were obliged to undertake commitments and to comply with conditions in exchange for foreign aid. While our respondents (in 2010) acknowledged that the West, honestly or not so honestly, was trying to help the Palestinian people build a state, the ‘conditions’ attached to foreign aid were understood as a means for ‘controlling the Palestinian aspirations’ by ‘creating dependency.’ Perceived Western agendas covered a wide range of conditions starting with ‘not expecting’ Israel to give up ‘her positions’ within the occupied territories, through supporting the peace process, and convincing the PNA to marginalizing less moderate elements, such as Hamas. For the Western world was ’not so keen on pressuring Israel into a solution,’ their cooperation with the Palestinians became ‘conditional on the [domestic, Palestinian] support for the peace process’ and ‘survival of PNA/Fatah’. It is worthwhile to note, that this argument was diametrically opposed to the one suggested not just by the Western diplomats and international press, but also by the academic literature emphasizing that it was the peace process – the Oslo Accords – which required financial support.

Palestinian respondents agreed that the PNA and the Palestinian people were obliged to pay the price of getting access to official development assistance. And the price to be paid was giving up elements of their national identity by means of complying with donor-set conditions. Conditionality, as an NGO leader put it: ’[r]esults in more division in the society. (…) If one wants to work with a certain donor, one will need to comply with certain policies, the donors’ policies. PFLP and Hamas will not get money from donors. (…)This creates an ‘imbalance’ between the people that receive funding from donors and all others’ [ii].

Cooperation, solidarity or cohesion between the donors and the Palestinian recipients (PNA and official bodies, NGOs benefiting from aid) prevailed at the expense of unity and agreement among the main beneficiaries, namely, Palestinian subgroups and individuals. This conviction was clearly shared by other respondents too: ’as long as we achieve their [donors’] interests, we are moderate. It diminish[es] [hurts] our national values’ [iii], or ’[t]hese donations … are the price of our [moderate] political stands’ [iv], or ’aid is a method [a means] to pressure the PNA to accept certain things. This happened when the international community forced the PNA to form a new government after the elections [in 2006]. Since the Palestinians are fully dependent on this aid, most of them became unemployed or poor [after the elections]. All this helps Israel and harms the Palestinian national aspirations’ [v].

More about the Palestinian perceptions on conditionality: Paragi 2012b.

Notes, sources and references:

[i] Two legislative elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the beginning of the Oslo Peace Process, the first in 1996, the second in 2006. At the January 2006 parliamentary elections, Hamas (List of Reform and Change) won a decisive majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (it gained 74 seats of the 132) defeating the PLO-affiliated Fatah party, the main partner for peace with Israel and partner for cooperation with the donor community. Reactions from Israel and the Western (OECD DAC) donor community led to governmental crisis and the split between Hamas (gaining control over the Gaza Strip) and Fatah (keeping its position in the West Bank). In June 2007, Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the government led by Ismail Haniye, and appointed Salam Fayyad as a prime minister. This move and the reforms implemented by Fayyad (and financed by the donor community) led to further rifts between the leadership sponsored by the international community and the PLO/Fatah.

[ii] Interview with the Palestinian leader of an international NGO, Ramallah, August 3, 2010

[iii] Interview with a tribal judge, hamula (extended family) leader and PNA official, Bethlehem, August 1, 2010

[iv] Interview with a former PLC member, Bethlehem, August 7, 2010

[v] Interview with the director of a Palestinian NGO, Gaza City, August 12, 2010


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