Emma Keelan and Brendan Ciarán Browne
Whilst optimists may claim the United States retains its credibility as a worthy mediator in the Palestine/Israel conflict, for realists recent developments have allowed the mask of folly to irreversibly slip. The US State Department move to implement sweeping cuts to the operational budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (hereinafter, UNRWA), the primary body responsible for providing support for Palestinian refugees across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and wider diaspora, represents one of the most draconian attacks on the Palestinian development and aid sector in recent times.
The choice to withdraw US aid to the sum of $300 million dollars in the first instance has been viewed by diplomats on opposing sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, perhaps surprisingly, as a ‘blunt’ move. Although anticipated by those working in UNRWA and the Palestinian leadership (given the President’s previous decision to withhold $65 million dollars of Palestinian aid in January 2018) its impact has been no less acute.
Citing, inter alia, disdain regarding UNRWA’s interpretation of Palestinian refugee status (one which incidentally chimes with international refugee law), the withdrawal of such vast quantities of aid in the region arguably reflects, both Trump’s negative feelings towards refugees more broadly, and his commitment to strengthening American alliances with Israel. The current US administration’s further disregard for all things Palestinian was again evident in the decision to close the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington, effectively signalling an end to the ‘business as usual’ approach in US/Palestinian diplomatic affairs.
Of course, one should not be too surprised by this form of ‘Trumpian’ diplomacy (a term used advisedly). The Palestinian ‘right of return’ and the ‘Jerusalem question’ have long been significant stumbling blocks for any lasting peace agreement, having been ‘off the table’ at Oslo (despite both effectively being matters resolvable through a robust application of international law).
Trump’s previous decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (May, 2018), when considered alongside the current withdrawal of UNRWA’s funding, suggests that rather than seeking ‘soft’ solutions, his approach is to strong-arm the Palestinian leadership through fiscal, and for many, actual starvation. In fact, in defending the rationale in closing the PLO office in Washington, Trump cited his decision was as a consequence of the PLO “not taking steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” Thus, President Trump’s obnoxious campaign slogan emblazoned on those now iconic red hats; ‘America first’ could conceivably include a new line of stitching beneath for the 2020 campaign; ‘Israel second’.
Whether by coincidence or design, the decision to shut the PLO office coincided with further threatening statements from the White House national security adviser, John Bolton who suggested that the US would consider the slashing of developmental aid for any other countries (and beneficiaries of US Aid subsidies) who cooperate with the International Criminal Court, or who criticise their best friend Israel in public. In recent times the Palestinian leadership have turned to the lodging of complaints against Israel at the ICC as a way of attempting to seek some form of redress in this entrenched and vastly asymmetrical conflict.
For those who are living at the sharp edge of the conflict in Palestine, and for whom, structural violence sits alongside the everyday reality of actual physical violence meted out by the illegal apparatus of Israeli occupation, the attacks on UNRWA will be catastrophic. With the current global aid industry stretched, a consequence of increasing intra and inter-state conflicts and disastrous foreign interventionist policies, UNRWA’s budgetary shortfall is unlikely to be rectified any time soon.
Formed in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 ‘Nakba’, (Immense catastrophe in Arabic), the organisation’s primary remit was to assist the approximately 750,000 newly designated Palestinian refugees who had been violently displaced as a result of the formation of the Israeli state. Over time, UNRWA has grown to become the longest standing NGO operating across Palestine. It is instrumental in providing assistance to over 5 million Palestinian refugees, not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but across the wider Palestinian diaspora. Key amongst its primary responsibilities is the administration of essential foods and medicines and providing education to a significant number of Palestinian children and young people. UNRWA’s distinctive pale blue signage adorns hospitals, clinics and schools, and are an omnipresent feature in the refugee camps that sit on the edge of urban centres across the region.
Whilst there exist strong and well-formed scholarly and practitioner arguments calling for a radical rethink of the aid and development sector in Palestine writ large, it feels churlish and counter-intuitive to rehash them at a time when the withdrawal of UNRWA funding will lead to the loss of Palestinian lives. In withholding its funding, the current US administration has jeopardised the functioning of nearly 700 schools, thus compromising the right to education for approximately 525,000 Palestinian children. So too the right to healthcare, with the cuts already having a direct impact on the safe and efficient functioning of 150 primary health care facilities.
Furthermore, it is important to stress the uneven impact that these cuts will have, disproportionately affecting those already marginalised within Palestinian society, including (but not limited to) women and those living with disabilities. As our research has shown, many Palestinian women face a constant struggle against pervasive and ingrained patriarchy, are confined by traditional paternalistic social norms, and are prevented from access to social and employment spaces. As such, the role played by NGOs such as UNRWA in financing skills training for women and supporting women’s cooperatives, is absolutely vital. In cutting the budgets of UNRWA and associated NGOs, it is these perceivably ‘soft’ activities that will be lost despite the fact that they are a vital means of opposing authoritative social norms and generating Palestinian female empowerment.
In facing up to the harsh reality of such draconian cuts, there will be growing calls – both from within the upper echelons of the governance structures of the organisations themselves and from those watching from afar – for the generation of a culture of ‘resilience’. And whilst the reduction in aid engenders obvious tactile issues on the ground, one must also be cognisant of the potential repercussions that the development of an organisational ‘resilience’ stratagem will have on those most impacted by these cuts.
The international development sector has become somewhat obsessed with resiliency. Defined as the ability to ‘bounce back’ or ‘overcome against the odds’, the resilience paradigm encourages individuals to absorb adversity and learn from it, promoting adaptability in order to allow future challenges to be dealt with more efficiently. Conceptualised initially within the field of ecology, as opposed to those exposed to violent conflict, the positive connotations surrounding resilience have invariably rendered it an attractive term for those seeking to manage the ongoing attacks on the budgets of development sector organisations. Palestine is no exception. Accordingly, the ‘resilience’ discourse has become increasingly prevalent within the OPT, with high profile UN organs, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) even sponsoring conferences with ‘resilience’ as their primary theme.
Yet the notion of developing a sense of resilience in terms of development in Palestine is problematic. For us, as echoed by others, the advancement of ‘western’ concepts of becoming ‘resilient’ fail to adequately consider the strategies and mechanisms of coping and adapting that Palestinians themselves have embraced for years. However, more importantly, in promoting the need to foster a sense of resilience, international organisations call on Palestinians to acquiesce and adapt to their lived realities, rather than seek ways of shaking them off.
The promotion of a resilience culture is thus ethnocentric, amounting to nothing other than a shifting of the blame. Where the challenges for many living in Palestine include; the omnipresent and arbitrary threat of Israeli state sponsored violence, a lack of access to clean and safe drinking water, poor or no access to essential medications, and a lack of access to the labour market, to ask Palestinians to become resilient is, at best farcical.
Thus, the Palestine aid sectors reaction to its reduced budget must not be simply to rely on the exploitation of a term that has become the dernier cri within international development. Quite simply, it is an exercise in hypocrisy for the international community to call on Palestinians to develop resilience whilst systematically undermining their capacity for resistance.
Emma Keelan is ST5, Respiratory Medicine, volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights, and enrolled in the University of Manchester, MA in Global Health at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute. Brendan Ciarán Browne is Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution, member of the Trinity International Development Initiative and Fellow in the Trinity Centre for Post Conflict Justice at Trinity College Dublin, Belfast.