In the West Bank, where I spent much of my childhood, signs of improved infrastructure and a better quality of life are impossible to miss. Roads that three decades ago were rocky dirt paths are now smoothly paved, rates for standard childhood vaccinations are at nearly 100 percent, and school attendance and literacy for both boys and girls are sky-high.
Many of these transformations have come about at least in part because of large amounts of foreign assistance since the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, a deal that was supposed to bring peace and a Palestinian state: It is estimated that Palestinians have received around $40 billion in international aid since then.
Some of this money has gone to aid agency or NGO programmes, and large amounts have also gone directly into the budget of the Palestinian National Authority (better known as the PA), which governs the West Bank.
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There is no question that many of the more than five million Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem) need help, including an estimated 2.8 million registered Palestine refugees. But this money has been distributed in an environment of consistent human rights violations and collective punishment, with little pushback from aid groups or donors.
“Aid has done little to counter the conditions, namely Israel’s crippling occupation and blockade, that make it necessary.”
This means that aid has done little to counter the conditions, namely Israel’s crippling occupation and blockade, that make it necessary. One year on from the last major war in Gaza, thousands of people have been unable to rebuild their destroyed homes, many are waiting for international help to do it, and tensions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are rising, possibly setting the stage for the next round of bombings. It has never been more clear: If the purpose of aid is to reduce the need for it, then aid to Palestine has failed.
The view from the ground
Palestinians themselves know this all too well. From September to December 2021, as the US policy fellow for Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, I engaged in a series of conversations with Palestinians – young and old, urban and rural, from unemployed to retired – within the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, and the Palestinian diaspora about how to rethink aid and development in Palestine.
Unsurprisingly, many of the people I spoke with were critical of how aid functions in the region. That’s despite the fact that all said they had seen clear advances in health, education, and even economic development, all due to international aid. There was a clear appreciation of the most tangible benefits of aid, like scholarships or other opportunities for young people, and they tended to recognise that Palestinian dependence on aid was likely to continue, at least for now (at least 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza need aid to get by).
But they felt that aid groups and donors have actually limited Palestinian development by failing to challenge damaging Israeli policies, like the strict limits on what can be brought into Gaza; or the expanding settlements, and the land and resources appropriated to support them, in the West Bank. This has resulted in a situation that has deteriorated over time, impeding the work of humanitarians and reproducing the conditions that make aid necessary in the first place.
My interviewees were also concerned that aid groups were overly concerned about short-term projects that were likely to bring in funding, but miss what the wider Palestinian population really needs. For example, one person spoke about a recent effort, led by an international donor, to hire more healthcare personnel throughout the West Bank during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the doctors hired were either inexperienced or in the wrong specialities, making them a burden to existing staff and not providing much-needed healthcare.
They also critiqued the dependence that external funding has had on the NGO community in Palestine. As local aid groups got to know the language and types of projects favoured by donors, some began to shape their proposals to fit these requirements. Groups that don’t want to be restricted by donor limitations end up without funding and unable to invest in innovative or long-term ideas. An economist from the West Bank told me that NGOs with “alternative ways of seeing things that reject the status quo” are sidelined, especially if they are seen as too critical of Israeli policy or push for alternatives to the two-state solution.
The role of Oslo
Much of this stems from the Oslo Accords. They are now seen by many as a failure, but they changed the face of aid in Palestine.
Prior to the accords, most aid to Palestinians was “emergency” in nature, focused on the refugee population. But since the agreement, both humanitarian and development aid began to be funnelled towards establishing the two-state solution, which nearly 30 years later, has not happened. Instead, Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip became even more deeply entrenched, as the often-repressive leaders of the PA in the West Bank, and of Hamas in Gaza, enjoy wealth and freedoms not afforded to the population they purportedly represent.
As the years since Oslo slip by, nobody seems to know what the long-term purpose of aid in Palestine is anymore. Is it meant to support institution building for a two-state solution, or to provide decades of emergency funding for a population experiencing ongoing violence and deprivation?
If it is the former, what are funders to make of the multiple signs that no two-state solution is on the horizon? If it is the latter, how should donors react to the reality that less than half of Palestinian households were food secure in 2020, poverty is increasing, and unemployment remains high, at 14 percent in the West Bank and nearly 50 percent in Gaza?
These are all questions the aid community needs to ask itself, and fast. The needs of Palestinians are urgent, the services provided by NGOs are truly critical, and the chances for political resolution seem as distant as ever.
A proposal for change
There is still opportunity for change. Here’s what the humanitarian community can do:
First, it should leverage international humanitarian law and norms when Israel blocks, impedes, or destroys their programming or infrastructure (like when hospitals are bombed in Gaza). Israel’s justifications for these attacks as necessary for its security should be challenged and investigated, and it should be expected to pay these agencies reparations when it is responsible for such actions.
“Palestinians and their needs should be at the centre of all aid, from conception to delivery.”
Second, donors and aid agencies must be unflinchingly honest about the conditions they work in. While Palestine is in many ways a humanitarian setting like many others – with a population in dire need governed by corrupt and ineffective bodies (the PA and Hamas) – donors are often unwilling to acknowledge the fact that it is also unique: Its sovereignty, and the rights of the people humanitarians serve, are dependent on a dominant party, Israel, that has enacted discriminatory policies and causes many of the very conditions that humanitarian groups are trying so hard to alleviate. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have likened these conditions to a system of apartheid. The response of humanitarian agencies should be commensurate with these realities.
Lastly, Palestinians and their needs should be at the centre of all aid, from conception to delivery. Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem are full of highly educated, socially and politically aware individuals with innovative ideas, knowledge of local needs, and a vision for what they want their future to look like. Donors that continue to cling to ideas from 30 years ago are losing out on the insights and expertise of those most affected, which limits the ability of aid to meet the current and future needs of Palestinians.
Addressing these structural challenges is not impossible, but it will require donors and foreign aid agencies to do what they have been unwilling to do thus far: Use their credibility and experience to change the circumstances that only ensure Palestinians need aid for decades to come.