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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

US aid freeze designed to further punish Palestinians

11 October 2011
Hillary Clinton recently stated that the US would withhold funding to UNESCO if the international organization votes to admit Palestine as a member. 
Amid the drama of the Palestinian statehood bid, the United States Congress has voted to freeze up to $200 million in aid that USAID, the State Department’s international development agency, would normally use to support programs designed to improve the Palestinian private sector as well as the domestic investment environment. A program dedicated to improving Palestinian health services is also in jeopardy.
Despite the diversity of the programs affected, the common theme of the freeze is the disruption of activities that might reinforce the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) drive for statehood. In fact, the project proposals for USAID’s economic development sector, especially the Investment Climate Improvement (ICI) program, clearly list Palestinian World Trade Organization (WTO) membership as an essential motivator for financial reform. Essentially, until the PA decided to pursue its statehood bid, the United States not only accepted the Palestinian desire for joining the WTO but actively promoted it.
As the PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, makes the rounds of major international agencies and organizations to ask for Palestinian membership, withholding aid takes on an added level of significance.
In recent days, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has agreed to allow existing members to vote on the admission of Palestine as a member. Hillary Clinton sharply responded that the admission of Palestine could lead to a cut in US support to UNESCO as a whole, as the US’ funding currently accounts for 22 percent of the Paris-based organization’s budget (“Clinton: UNESCO should think again before granting Palestinian membership”, Haaretz, 6 October 2011).
It would seem that while the US has publicly committed itself to vetoing thePA’s efforts at the UN Security Council, President Barack Obama and the State Department are frantically working behind the scenes to ensure that such a politically disastrous step is not necessary. Yet, in unabashedly pushing its resolutely pro-Israeli agenda, the United States increasingly appears both arrogant and clueless.
Who is this aid freeze designed to punish?
Within this context, Congress’ decision to withhold assistance from the PA fits with the US’ perpetually increasing favoritism of Israel but it also raises many questions. Given that cutting off foreign assistance to a recipient country is at least in theory a drastic step reserved for pariah states that harm their own people, which behavior is the Congressional aid freeze designed to punish?
As the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Richard Falk recently argued, the PA, regardless of one’s perspective on the desirability of a two-state solution, is exercising a legitimate right to declare its statehood at the UN (“Reflections on the Abbas statehood speech,” Al Jazeera English, 4 October 2011).
In this context, the behavior of the United States Congress reflects the institution’s deep-rooted bias against Palestinians, which the largest pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has carefully cultivated and reinforced through domestic lobbying and fully-funded trips to the region. Indeed, the Congressional members behind the push to freeze aid are all known for their ties to the controversial group, as reported in the Huffington Post (“AIPAC’s democrats demand cutting Palestinian aid,” 3 October 2011).
In many ways, the United States, which continues to see itself as a global diplomatic leader despite its heavily damaged international — and especially regional — reputation, is shamelessly acting like a schoolyard bully.
Further highlighting the absurdity of the Congressional move, the cuts come during a time of economic crisis both within Palestine and the United States; and Congress has just affirmed that it will not even consider cutting its funding to the Israeli government. Yet, blindly promoting Israeli security means that US funding and military assistance is directly implicated in the occupation of Palestine — including an extensive list of human rights abuses as well as regular Palestinian civilian injuries and casualties at the hands of Israeli forces armed to the teeth with US-made weapons.
On an annual basis, the already heavily indebted US sends $3 billion to Israel. Israel also benefits from a 10-year $30 billion aid package from the time of George W Bush’s presidency, which Obama agreed to continue immediately after becoming president. And Congress has just decided to decrease the overall budget allocated to foreign aid without reducing this sizeable funding to what the UN classifies as the world’s 15th most developed country, following France and ahead of many countries of the European Union. Such contradictions in US policy speak for themselves.
Under President Obama, who came to office in a furor of hope, the one constant is that justice for Palestinians does not figure among the US’ priorities. Indeed, diplomatic efforts have focused overwhelmingly on how to remove the “Palestinian question” from the international agenda rather than on repairing the damage inflicted by decades of colonialism, neocolonialism, and occupation.
Reasons for optimism amid political theatrics
Yet, the aid freeze combined with the US’s general approach to the UN bid has led to some promising developments on the ground.
Even before Congress announced its decision, university-aged Palestinian activists began to make their sentiments about the US known at a meeting for the USAID-funded Sharek Youth Forum, calling for an end to US funding of the organization and, significantly, presenting an increasingly united front against the agenda-setting role of USAID. According to one of protest’s organizers, an activist with Herak Shababi (a youth movement that sprang up as a part of the larger 15 March movement), those involved were moved to action at the Forum because, while they object to the structure of the aid system as a whole, USAID’s desire to influence the political dialogue of young people is “particularly provocative in the context of the Palestinian struggle for justice.”
Virtually all participants also object to USAID’s “terrorism clause,” which requires all of the organization’s aid recipients to affirm that they will not fund or take part in terrorist activities, given that the United States considers one of Palestine’s leading political parties, Hamas, to be a terrorist organization.
Most recently, Palestinian students assembled outside a Ramallah-based establishment hosting American employees of USAID to protest the freeze itself. In a telling display of domestic sentiments, students participating in the action declared “Yes we can — boycott America!” The fact that Palestinians themselves are beginning to unite around this issue is promising for domestic political activism as a whole.
While Fatah, the party in control of the PA, has coolly asserted that Arab donors would cover any deficit that results from missing US funds, the PAshould take the opportunity to institute internal reforms to reduce the government’s extraordinary dependence on foreign aid. That is what a government that represents the best interests of the Palestinian people would and should do.
Michelle Gyeney is a freelance writer and is researching policy incoherence of development practice in Palestine.

Who Gains, Who Loses in Israel-Hamas Prisoner Swap to Free Gilad Shalit? Read more:

Posted by  Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is seen in this file still image from video released October 2, 2009 by Israeli television. (Photo: Reuters)

Win-win outcomes are all too rare in the Middle East, but the agreement that will see Hamas free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for a reported 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will allow each of its stakeholders to claim victory.

Details of the deal concluded in Cairo under Egyptian mediation remain sketchy, but it is believed to involve securing Shalit's release from Hamas captivity in exchange for some 1,000 prisoners — 450 of whom will be named by Hamas, and 550 to be named later on by Israel, and will include as many as 315 men convicted of killing hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks, to whose release the Israelis had strenuously objected in the past. Shalit was seized from the Israeli side of the Gaza boundary in mid-2006. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said Tuesday the exchange will begin within a week, with 450 Palestinian prisoners, and Shalit, being transferred to Egypt.

Hamas spokesmen claimed Tuesday that among the men to be released is Marwan Barghouti, the popular Fatah leader widely viewed as a potential successor (and quite possibly also rival) to President Mahmoud Abbas. According to some Israeli reports, Barghouti will be required to accept exile from the West Bank. Another powerful symbol among those to be released is the Hamas militant Abdullah Barghouti (no relation), serving 67 life sentences for building bombs used in suicide attacks. (Update: Israel later insisted neither Barghouti would be released.)

(SEEPhotos of the Saga of Gilad Shalit)

If the deal is implemented, there are plenty of political spoils to go around:

* Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will gain the kudos for having done a painful deal to bring home a young man whose captivity had been a source of enduring national anguish and pain. The modest smiles on the faces of his parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, upon hearing the news that their son will finally see the light of day after five years and four months of grueling secret captivity, will be hailed as an iconic moment in Israel.

* For Hamas, the deal will be hailed as a major achievement -- having forced the Israelis to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners (of all factions), the Islamist movement will have scored a win on one of the most powerful emotive issues for residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and it will claim to have demonstrated that it was the steadfastness of the "resistance" rather President Mahmoud Abbas' negotiations and diplomacy that forced Israel to concede. The agreement will serve as a stark reminder of Hamas' centrality to the Palestinian political equation, despite its absence from levers of power in the Palestinian Authority. The fact that Hamas, rather than Abbas, was able to secure the release of key Fatah prisoners, some of whom had served as many 25 years, will sweeten the victory for the Islamists.

* And for Egypt, which brokered the final deal after German mediation efforts had faltered, it has provided an opportunity to demonstrate to the Israelis (and Americans) as well to the Palestinians that the military junta that replaced President Hosni Mubarak can play a responsible role in mediating positive outcomes.

Needless to say, there's little political gain in the deal for Abbas, currently on a world tour to boost support for his effort to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority has had no part in negotiating the prisoner swap, and holds no sway over events in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

In Caracas, Abbas told TIME's Karl Vick, who is traveling with the Palestinian leader on his diplomatic roadshow, that "all in all it is good, of course. To release 1,000 prisoners is good for us, for the families." He claimed he wasn't worried if this would boost Hamas, a political rival: "Whether they are with us or against us, they are Palestinians. Any release of any prisoner is in the interest of every Palestinian."

Still, Abbas is more likely to be hoping that the attention garnered by the prisoner swap passes quickly, to allow his diplomatic quest to reclaim the Palestinian spotlight — although Hamas has no interest in letting that happen.

It's not yet clear why a deal whose parameters appear to be broadly similar to ones that have been on the table  -- and rejected by one side or the other -- for the best part of four years now were suddenly acceptable. One of the key sticking points in the recent past has been the question of where freed Palestinian prisoners will live, and whether they will include residents of East Jerusalem. Hamas claims to have prevailed on the latter, but it's not clear whether the prisoners will be allowed to return to their homes, as the Islamists have insisted, or whether they've bowed to the Israeli demand that some of those from the West Bank be transferred to Gaza, and others be required to live in exile. It may be days before those details are disclosed, and also the full list of those to be freed.

Hamas' circumstances outside of Gaza have certainly become increasingly precarious in the course of the Syrian rebellion, that has jeopardized the movement's political sanctuary in Damascus. The Assad regime has demanded public support from the Palestinian group, but Hamas has declined to provide that -- its own roots in the Muslim Brotherhood give Hamas ties of political kinship with the Syrian chapter of the movement, which is at the forefront of confrontations with the Assad regime. Hamas' equivocation in the face of the Syrian crisis has drawn punishment from Iran, which has reportedly cut off funding to Gaza, where Hamas has reportedly been unable to pay salaries for months. And some Syrian officials even accuse the moment of directly backing the insurrection. So, Hamas may be looking for new digs, and it behooves the movement's leadership to make nice with Egypt while it considers its options.

For the Israelis, there was a sense that the rapidly changes in the regional environment that began with the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia last spring could jeopardize prospects for achieving Shalit's freedom. "We had a fear that the window of opportunity was closing," Netanyahu said ahead of the Israeli cabinet meeting to discuss the deal. Hamas' circumstances in Syria were changing, and the Egyptian military regime whose cooperation he praised may not necessarily be a long-term fixture.

And an Egyptian military leadership operating in an environment where it has legalized the Muslim Brotherhood and spoken of a democratic political process would not necessarily share Mubarak's reluctance to see Hamas win a victory.

There will be pain and regret, inevitably, when the lists of those to be freed are released -- from Israelis who have suffered at the hands of those who will now walk free, and from Palestinians whose loved ones were not on the list (there are thousands) and whose hopes of getting them freed in the foreseeable future will have been dashed. But the smiles on the faces of Noam and Aviva Shalit, and those that can be expected on the faces of a thousand Palestinian families when their own sons are freed, offers an all-too-rare moment free of pain in the enduring conflict.

-- With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem

UN rights chief urges Israel to 'protect Palestinian civilians' from settler attacks

  • Published 12:03 11.10.11
  • Latest update 12:03 11.10.11

Spokesman for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says attacks since beginning of September show upsurge of violence in West Bank.

By The Associated Press
The United Nations human rights office urged Israel on Tuesday to stop Israeli extremists from attacking Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva that Israel has a legal obligation "to protect Palestinian civilians and property in the occupied Palestinian territory."
Palestinians' olive trees - AP - 2010
A Palestinian woman reacts next to cut olive trees in the northern West Bank village of Burin, near Nablus, 2010.
Photo by: AP

Colville said that the wave of attacks occurring since September must be properly investigated and victims compensated, adding that they were "emblematic of the phenomenon of settler violence throughout the West Bank."
Colevile specifically cited the uprooting of 200 olive trees in the West Bank village of Qusra village on October 6, and the shooting death of a Palestinian civilian by an Israel Defense Forces soldier two weeks prior, as examples of incidents that should be brought for investigation.
Israel Police suspect extremist Jews to be behind a series of attacks against Arabs in Israel proper over the last few weeks, including the torching of a mosque in the North and the desecration of Muslim and Christian graves in a Jaffa cemetery.
The attacks were allegedly carried out as a "price tag" operation, a policy initiated by Israeli extremists intended as revenge attacks for any freeze or demolition of West Bank settlements.