Starving a nation

Print edition : May 19, 2006

Palestinians collect their family ration from a United Nations agency office in Gaza. The U.N. has estimated that more than 1.2 million Palestinians suffer from extreme poverty. - SAMUEL ARANDA/AFP

Israeli and Western governments are denying the Palestinian Authority funds after the Hamas victory in the elections.

THE Palestinian people, who have undergone much suffering for the last half a century and more, are once again being punished. Their crime this time is that they voted the Islamists to power.

As soon as the results of the January elections were out, Israel vowed to stop all contacts, financial and political, with the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). The Americans immediately followed suit. Besides, the Bush administration issued a call to the international community to boycott the Hamas-led government. The European Union (E.U.) quickly fell in line. It was to the credit of Russian President Vladimir Putin that despite pressure from Washington and Brussels, he invited a high-level Hamas delegation to Moscow in March. The Russian government has pledged to continue with its funding of the Hamas-led government.

In the wake of the grave economic crisis facing the P.A., Hamas delegations visited the capitals of many countries to plead for emergency funding. The Palestinian government has warned of an economic collapse within months. Israel has frozen millions of dollars in customs and tax revenues that should have legitimately gone to the Palestinian exchequer. The P.A. is very dependent on external aid, which last year amounted to $1.1 billion. As much as 80 per cent of the aid came from Western sources, with the E.U. providing $600 million annually.

With legitimate revenues frozen and aid suspended, hospitals in the occupied territories are running out of essential medicines. There have been reports of widespread starvation and general deprivation. The U.N. has estimated that more than 1.2 million Palestinians already suffer from extreme poverty. Salaries of the 152,000 civil servants of the P.A. have not been paid for months. These Palestinians are responsible for the running of hospitals, schools and primary health clinics. More than a million Palestinians, constituting 25 per cent of the population, are dependent on these salaries. Non-payment of salaries to the 70,000 security personnel has the potential of triggering a serious law and order problem in the occupied territories. There have been reports on some security men in Gaza and the West Bank going on a rampage to protest against the non-receipt of salaries. Functionaries of Al Fatah, which lost the elections to Hamas, are said to be inciting the soldiers with claims that soldiers and officials owing allegiance to Hamas are being paid.

Given its track record, it was not surprising that the Bush administration had yet again chosen to parrot the Israeli view on Hamas, despite the talk of supporting democracy and free elections in the Muslim world. Bush not only stopped all American aid but also ordered the freezing of the P.A.'s accounts in U.S. banks. According to observers who were present during the January elections, the exercise was the most transparent and the fairest held in the Arab world in a long time. Former American President Jimmy Carter, who was one of them, has described the elections in Palestine as "honest, fair and peaceful". Carter pointed out that though Hamas would control the Prime Minister's post and the cabinet, Mahmoud Abbas, as Chairman of the P.A. and head of the PLO, is in overall charge of foreign policy and negotiations with Israel. He had observed recently that it was Israel's colonisation of Palestine that precluded lasting peace.

However, Israel seems determined to tighten the screws on the beleaguered Palestinian administration and people. Hamas legislators have not been allowed to travel freely even within the occupied territories. Many of them have been briefly arrested by Israeli security forces. Senior Israeli officials periodically make statements that some Hamas legislators, including the Prime Minister, continue to be on the list for "targeted assassinations".

Since the Hamas victory, Israel has in fact increased the frequency of targeted assassinations and military raids inside the occupied territories. The continuous Israeli shelling of civilian areas has killed many Palestinians. The Kadima Party, now led by Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, which won the recent elections in Israel, has announced plans to annex more Palestinian territory and incorporate it into the Israeli state. Israel is also accelerating the construction of the "separation wall", which will gobble up more Palestinian land and cut off the livelihood of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

The West, evidently, has no problems with Israel's continued belligerence and expansionism. In order to bring Hamas to heel, the West seems to be willing to go to the extent of starving the entire Palestinian population. Washington and Tel Aviv have signalled to the international community that their short-term plan is to destabilise the Palestinian government and oust Hamas.

The Hamas-led government is, however, standing firm. "It is not time yet to raise our hands and give up," Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razek said in the last week of April. He reiterated that there "will not be any political concessions in return for the dollar". Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have pledged emergency funds totalling more than $250 million for the P.A. The Arab League has pledged another $50 million. However, the money pledged is taking a lot of time to materialise in the P.A.'s treasury. International and local Arab banks fear that there would be reprisals from Washington for breaking the economic embargo on the government, by helping in the transfer of funds. Bank officials said that they fear reprisals in the form of sanctions. Even the Bank of Palestine denied a request from the P.A. to process foreign aid payments. Its Chairman said that he feared "sanctions from outside parties".

The Palestinian Finance Minister said in late April that he was trying to persuade Egyptian and Jordanian banks to "find a way out". The funds earmarked for the P.A. have already been converted to euros in a bid to circumvent U.S. punitive action. The U.S. had designated Hamas as a "terrorist" organisation some time ago. The U.S. Treasury Department's spokesperson said in the third week of April that any organisation or individual facilitating direct fund-raising for Hamas "will open themselves up to action by the United States". The other problem is delivering the funds to the P.A. Until now, all aid was channelled through Israel's Central Bank. Tel Aviv would refuse to process funds for the P.A. in the present circumstances.

French President Jacques Chirac proposed on April 29 the creation of a World Bank fund to pay the salaries of Palestinian civil servants. He also suggested that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas administer that fund. However, such a proposal is anathema to the popularly elected government. Ghazi Hamad, government spokesman, said that in principle the Palestinian government did not have a problem with the proposal. However, Hamad added that he was against the creation of a parallel "second government" owing allegiance to the President and the defeated Fatah and putting that group in charge of the disbursement of foreign funds.

The Hamas leadership has on several occasions indicated that it would not be averse to recognising the Zionist state and signing a peace deal, provided Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 borders. In the last week of April, Nasseridin al-Shaer, the Deputy Prime Minister of Palestine, said that his party considered the Arab League Plan adopted in the 2002 Beirut summit to be a viable one. The Arab League Plan called for full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, consisting of East Jerusalem, West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

In the last week of April, the U.N.'s Middle East Coordinator, Alvaro de Soto, warned the U.N. Security Council that the prospects of a two-state settlement are receding by the day. He said that the failure of the Hamas-led government to recognise the State of Israel was one of the factors. At the same time he blamed Israel for creating "facts on the ground, including settlement expansion and a route of the (West Bank separation) barrier which deviates from the 1967 borders, raising serious concerns whether it will be ever possible to achieve a viable and contiguous Palestinian state".

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