The decision to withdraw funding from the democratically elected, Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, is not one I would like to have on my conscience. But I can, as they say, see where the US and EU are coming from.
Back in January, President George W. Bush ruled out giving aid to a Hamas government unless it renounced violence and its stance on Israel. “They have got to get rid of that arm of their party which is armed and violent and secondly, they have got to get rid of that part of their platform that says they want to destroy Israel; if they don’t we won’t deal with them. Aid packages won’t go forward,” the president warned in an interview with CNN News.
The US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack warned that aid programmes to Palestinians would be “reviewed”. “To be very clear, we do not provide money to terrorist organisations,” he stated emphatically.
In the intervening months Hamas has done little to allay fears in Washington or elsewhere. Khaled Meshaal, political chief of Hamas, declared that “Hamas is immune to bribery, intimidation and blackmail”, and said the party would not be changing its stance on Israel.
The death of a 17-year-old suicide bomber in Tel Aviv, which claimed the lives of six people and injured many more, was roundly condemned by President Mahmoud Abbas, as a “terrorist attack” and he denounced all such actions as harmful to the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Hamas’ Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Interior Ministry would commit himself only to noting: “We think that this operation... is a direct result of the policy of aggression and siege committed against our people.”
In April, after much shuttlecock diplomacy, the EU said that it too would be cutting aid to the PA but, it noted, some of the reduction in funding would be channelled into the Occupied Territories via humanitarian aid organisations. Israel also announced it would be withholding monies owed. British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, said: “We do not wish to punish the Palestinian people for the decision they freely made to elect a Hamas dominated government. However, Hamas has got to recognise that being elected as a government, democratically, they have responsibilities … one of which is to eschew violence.”
Unfortunately, Mr Straw’s assurances ring a little hollow in the majority of Arab capitals. Dutch foreign minister, Ben Bot, was more straightforward when he announced: “The Palestinian people have opted for this government, so they will have to bear the consequences.”
The majority of Palestinians feel betrayed. They were encouraged by Washington and Europe to participate in free and fair elections; now, for making the “wrong” decision in the eyes of the West, they are being penalised.
Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians biggest Arab donor, also believes the international community is being “unreasonable”. “The EU insisted on having elections in Palestine and this is the result of what they asked for,” the kingdom’s foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, said. “Now they come around and say (they) don’t accept the will of the people that was expressed through democratic means, which seems an unreasonable position to take.”
Again, it is simple to see and to sympathise with the Palestinian and Saudi point of view.
Meanwhile, in the mean streets of the Occupied Territories an already bad situation becomes worse. There have been generous financial pledges from Arab states but when, or if, these will come soon is anybody’s guess. In 2005 the EU gave the Palestinians $600m in aid, while Washington handed over $400m. The dramatic reductions in cash to the PA means that most of the 140,000 people employed by the Authority in the Gaza Strip will go unpaid for the time being. “The Gazan population is extremely dependent on donor aid so, when it is reduced, it has an immediate consequence on the ground,” explained John Ging, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA) in Gaza.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says the Palestinians already face “extreme hardship” and has expressed grave concerns because of the deepening economic crisis stoked by Israeli restrictions on the movement of both goods and people, imposed on security grounds.
Presumably the idea is that once the situation becomes so severe that the old, the sick and the young are dying in the streets, Hamas will buckle in to international demands. Even if it does, there will be a great deal of bloodshed before any capitulation. The Palestinians already feel they have little to lose except their lives, the cult of suicide bombing attests to that. And, without money for food and the most basic essentials, things are likely to get very ugly very quickly. Over 58 years the Palestinians have resisted oppression, they are old hands at it by now. There is a litany of acts of savagery, humiliation and degradation they have suffered over more than half a century. Nobody wants or needs another one.