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International Development in Palestine has failed

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By Peter Schaefer, Representative of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Palestine

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Contribution to the European Left Middle East Conference

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Istanbul, Turkey, 19 December 2008

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The international community, according to the players’ own words, is active towards a "peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and "to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel". This is to bring peace and stability to the region as a whole. Unnecessary to say that this goal hasn’t been achieved by the peace process following the Oslo accords, or later the Road Map for peace and similar undertakings.

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We in the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation also aspire to contribute our share to peace between Israelis and Palestinians and to establish a Palestinian state. In my opinion, and I think that history proofs me right, we don't have to talk about the first target for a long time, the peaceful solution. The conflict can be solved as simply as other conflicts have been solved where one nation occupied another. Stop foreign military and civilian domination and then start a period for reconciliation.

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This stage can only be achieved by political pressure. But until today, this pressure exists in theory only. There are UN resolutions in place and there's even a ruling by the International Court of Justice on the illegality of the Israeli wall inside the West Bank and its necessary removal. You all now that nobody ever made a practical move to implement these resolutions, decisions, and rulings. So, there is no need for Israel to withdraw its military and settlers. The European Union even awards Israel with increasing its cooperation.

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But also other international understandings are pushed aside when it comes to Palestine. The Millennium Development Goals for example are actively undermined in Palestine. The negative effects of the closure of the Gaza Strip and the collective punishment of its population with regards to food security, employment, and children's health have been pointed out by international organisations themselves. Increased poverty and malnutrition are forced upon 1.5 million people by states that put their signatures under a document stating to alleviate these problems worldwide.

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The issue of our gathering here is to find development strategies for Palestine, alternative to the ones implemented by the current US and EU administrations. This relates to the second international target: "Establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel". Since 1993, the signing of the Oslo accords, the international community and especially the EU and its member states have put considerable efforts, mostly financial, into the country, to "develop Palestine". Thousands of projects have been implemented with considerable amounts of money. For sure, most of these projects have been individual successes or were at least presented as such. But what is the outcome of all these successful projects after 15 years of peace building:

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§         There is no peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t been solved, and there haven’t even been practical steps towards this direction;

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§         The desired two-state-solution is not in sight. On the contrary, the territory available for Palestinians is decreasing;

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§         The Gaza Strip has been isolated, the West Bank is moving towards the same direction. And East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Jerusalem, is not accessible for Palestinians living in other West Bank cities anymore;

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§         Palestinians are not governed by one national government anymore that is the outcome of elections and legitimised by the population;

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§         The international community’s Palestinian partner, the formerly dominant Fatah movement, cannot agree on a programme, is internally divided and on the brink of splitting;

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§         The progressive forces, these are the ones that stand for democratic values and human rights, have been marginalised;

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§         Hamas, that is the movement that hasn’t been supported, trained and influenced by the EU and the USA, developed to be the strongest and best organized political power.

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§         And worst of all, the Palestinian society as a whole has been made dependent on foreign donations. This money has been used for immediate issues, to keep the society somehow going. But profound social and political development was not on the agenda.

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Despite these negative results, no change of approach is foreseen.

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I see our task as a progressive political foundation as to understand why a state of Palestine hasn't advanced. Who is responsible for what?

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The simple thing to say is that a state cannot develop while remaining under occupation. Every Palestinian can tell you this from his or her own experience. But still, billions of Euros and Dollars have been pumped into Palestine. Projects have been implemented with people that are, of course, eager, to develop their country and to establish a souvereign state. Also people from the Palestinian left.

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On a superficial look, progressive, leftist Palestinian actors enjoy broad support of the international community already since 1981. This is because mainly the left political parties formed mass organisations that took care of everything from health services to professional associations. And since 1993, the signing of the Oslo Accords, these organisations have been one of the main implementers of foreign aid in Palestine. Every­thing from democracy promotion to community development has been worked on by these actors that originate in the left and sometimes are still members of leftist parties. But the international focus on big NGOs – many still call them civil society organisations – contributed to margin­alising the forces fighting for democratic, progressive values. Promising actors now work with an NGO and receive good salaries and big budgets. In contrast, the parties are politically and financially marginalised. Even more, the work of the leftist NGOs with the people didn’t even benefit the left parties or progressive values. But the big money, the foreign, often non-political discourse and the elitist behaviour of the NGOs alienated the people.

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I would like to share with you a few critical voices, mostly from Palestine, regarding the role and effect of what is called “international development cooperation”, also with regards to supporting Palestinian NGOs. The following are only excerpts of longer analyses and remain therefore very general. I hope you excuse this. You find, of course, also very good people who do very progressive work, even within the tight frame imposed by the donors.

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First I would like to counter the international understanding of Palestinians supporting the peace process if they only enjoyed so-called “peace dividends”, meaning direct improvement of life. In contrast to this perception, Rex Brynen shows that

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“support for the peace process was highest in the mid- to late 1990s, when the Palestinian economy was weak owing to Israeli movement restrictions. Conversely, prior to the intifada there was growing public support for armed attacks against Israelis, despite substantial growth in per capita income in 1999-2000.” [Brynen, Rex: Donor Aid to Palestine: Attitudes, Incentives, Patronage and Peace, in: Keating/Le More/Lowe (Ed.): Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground. The Case of Palestine, London 2005, p. 130]

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Palestinians criticize the international support focus on what today are the so-called “professional NGOs”, “Mega-NGOs” that imple­ment international funding.

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In this regard, Karma Nabulsi says that:

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“By entirely neglecting local party, grassroots and union platforms and committees and also community associations and activities, donors contributed to a de-democratization of civil society in the West Bank and Gaza instead of increasing the capacity of civil society for democratization.” [Nabulsi, Karma: The State-Building Project: What Went Wrong?, in: Keating/Le More/Lowe (Ed.): Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground. The Case of Palestine, London 2005, p. 123.]

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Furthermore, it is generally acknowledged that voluntary work has a big share in improving lives, in developing a society, and creating social networks. Yet, a study of Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar points out the destructive impact of the current international development approach on the societal level in Palestine:

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“Although historically voluntarism was a prominent feature of Palestinian society in the 1970’s and 1980’s as part of the national movement, and the voluntary work initiatives that were encouraged by the leftists, today these types of social networks have largely collapsed. […] Voluntarism has come to be viewed as that which is diametrically opposed to paid employment. Moreover, in the [Palestinian] NGO sector, the idea of a local volunteer has become almost foreign and the notion of voluntarism as something valuable in and of itself has become lost.” [Hanafi, Sari/Tabar, Linda: The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite. Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs, Jerusalem 2005, p. 240.]

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Khalil Nakhleh even speaks of

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“a process of societal un-development, as an inherent ingredient of external intervention through 'aid’, the apex of which we experience under the relentless pressure of sustained suppression, imprisonment and total disempowerment.“ [Nakhleh, Khalil: The Myth of Palestinian Development. Political Aid and Sustainable Deceit, Jerusalem 2004, p. 195.]

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And with regards to the international support for the progressive women’s movements, mainly by the EU and the USA, Islah Jad of the Birzeit University states:

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“In the case of Palestine, the discourse of NGOs was used to forge a space in the public arena at the expense of old mass-based organisations. It recast the 'old’ basis for legitimacy founded on resistance and sacrifice as a basis for women’s subordination and isolation. And it spoke less to the overall social, economic, and political context than to the desires of the donors and elites who were to propel the rapid growth of these organisations in this setting. Against this background, I believe that women’s NGOs and the new discourses that they brought to the public sphere might – however inadvertently – have acted to disempower, de-legitimise, and fragment civil-society secular actors and their movements in Palestine.” […] The “talk promoted by international NGOs has contributed to the growing power and legitimacy of the Islamists [should be] consequence enough for” taking “a long, hard look at what actually is going on”. [Jad, Islah: NGOs: between buzzwords and social movements, in: Development in Practice, Vol. 17, August 2007.]

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In short, international aid has de-developed and de-democratised Palestinian society and marginalised progressive actors. The rationale that improving people’s lives would automatically lead to support for the peace process is wrong. Furthermore, as I said, the people that haven’t received support and training by the West, the Hamas movement, today dominate the political and social culture.

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It is imperative that we support Palestinians trying to find alternative approaches to development. We want to achieve this with progressive actors. But who are they?

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a.   The left Palestinian parties

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They are the true progressive grassroots organisations in Palestine. They exist for decades already and are acknowledged parts of the society. They have their networks and contacts in every town and village.

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Currently, leftist parties struggle to survive. They are financially dependent on the Palestinian Authority, meaning Fatah. Decision-making is centralized, structures are petrified. There is almost no input in the public discourse. Individually, only the PFLP would gain votes beyond the 2 percent margin. So various left parties have been trying different unification approaches that remained superficial for different reasons.

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The international development industry sidelined the left parties. We shouldn’t make the same mistake. We need to engage and network with the parties itself to enable them to stand up to the current challenges.

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b.   The progressive civil society organisations

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Support to these organisations must allow work on the basis of their progressive values and political agendas. In the past, the projects funded by EU and USA had to remain non-political. But the NGOs and grassroots organisations from the left must be enabled to regain credibility with the population. They are the means to empower the population again in order to develop their own approaches for improving the situation without having to bother with European project logic and tools.

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My small wish list for you involved at the European Union level:

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1. Get acquainted with the system of what they call “development cooperation”.

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To my knowledge, leftists criticize conditions in and politics towards Palestine mostly on a superficial level, like: 'Implement the UN resolutions’, 'withdraw the army’, 'increase financial support’ and things like this. This applies to other areas of conflict, too. But information and understanding about how – maybe well-intended – European money is spent and works in reality is essential. I’m not sure what harms Palestinians most, the Israeli occupation or the system of foreign funding.

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2. Organise standardised and thus repeatable introductions for progressive actors into the European Union institutions and their systems in Brussels!

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Only knowledge about a system will empower people to develop organised approaches and alternative strategies. In Palestine, this knowledge about the EU mostly doesn’t exist.

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3. Directly network with progressive Palestinian parties!

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They are mostly detached from international contacts as well as political and financial support. But they are the ones connected to the people.

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4. With all your means available, organise visits to Palestine and Israel to meet progressive actors!

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Mostly only official positions are accessible and known to the public. But both societies have more on offer than the Israeli establishment or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine.

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5. In the various related committees, press for development aid to focus on actual needs of the Palestinian population and take the local discourse into consideration!

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For example: Palestinians suffer from a lack of water. But no single well accessing a new water source has been drilled by Palestinians in the West Bank since 1993, because the Israeli occupation authorities withhold their permission. And the international donor community complies. Projects worth millions of Euros have been implemented to improve existing water systems or to educate Palestinians how to safe water. But no drop of additional water has been made accessible to the population with all this money. So there are still many localities that don’t receive tap water for the whole summer. And the Palestinian summer is long.

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6. Lobby for reviewing the “EU list of terrorist entities”!

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I don’t want to talk here about the rationale for such a list or it being an obstacle for the work of international humanitarian organisations. It is just important to know that – despite all the criticism – the PFLP for example, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is the major organized leftist actor in Palestine. Strengthening progressive values without involving the PFLP is not credible and doesn’t lead anywhere.

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Also Hamas has been included in this terrorism list. And I don’t think that any development in Palestine, let alone a lasting peace treaty with Israel, will be achieved by outlawing half of the Palestinian population.

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Furthermore, organisations labeled as “terrorist” actually benefit from their status. Treating Hamas this way contributed immensely to their popularity. And they know it. One of their main slogans in the 2006 parliamentary elections was: “The USA and Israel are against Hamas? Who are you for?” The answer was clear.

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I would hope that your political positions will be, too.

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1 . Kerryn/ hSoYDafxIKQFpz/ SpbotCGXbM

What a joy to find someone else who thinks this way.


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