Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bankrupting Palestine

January 19, 2006

So “Paradise Now” won the Golden Globe for best foreign film, which is pretty amazing. Also amazing was the Associated Press article, which identified the filmmaker as “Hany Abu-Assad, an Arab born in Israel — currently living in Holland — who considers himself Palestinian.” Did you ever hear anyone describe Louis Malle as “a white man born in France, currently living in the United States, who considers himself French”?

I don’t believe the writer or his editors intended to be offensive, but the statement illustrates the struggle that Palestinians have to wage every day, to be accepted and understood as a nation. And on that note, we return to the question of U.S. aid to the Palestinian authority.

Let's start with an article I saw in the New York Times in July, entitled, "Palestinian Security Forces Are Found Unfit." It reported the results of a study financed by the Dutch and Canadian governments, but conducted by a Washington-based group called Strategic Assessments Initiative, in close consultation with a U.S.-appointed security coordinator, Lt. Gen. William Ward. So this report, which was apparently intended in part to "guide foreign donors," concluded that "The security forces of the Palestinian Authority are divided, weak, overstaffed, badly motivated and underarmed." It blamed a lot of it on the legacy of Arafat, who on his death became everyone's favorite whipping boy (even more so than when he was alive), citing his "policy of duplication and promoting rivalry within his organization."

There is plenty of truth to claims of corruption in the PA, under Arafat and since. No one has been more relentless in pointing that out than Palestinian activists from all political factions. "Over six years ago [that is, 1988], a Palestinian parliamentary panel conducted an investigation of the PA corruption. The nine-member panel of the Palestinian Legislative Council had, at the time, acted upon the Palestinian State Controller's report that found that nearly half of the authority's $326 million 1997 budget had been lost through corruption or financial mismanagement," wrote Palestinian Jordanian Hasan Abu Nimah in 2004.

But there are a bunch ironies in the security report, which were of course not mentioned in any of the reportage about it. It pointed out that there were too many divided, "largely unintegrated forces like General Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Special Security, Special Forces and the Political Direction Department," something that I observed during my time there. I remember a time during my first three months in Salfit when a coworker and I tried to get a knowledgeable Palestinian friend to explain to us all the different Palestinian security forces and what they did. What the report doesn't mention is that since the Oslo period, the majority of U.S. aid to the PA has been for security, and a lot of those conflicting and competing security forces - twelve separate forces - were established with the aid and support of the U.S. government.

Second, I haven't seen the report itself, but the Times article didn't mention until two-thirds of the way down that Israel had gone "to war against the Palestinian security forces, ... destroying much of their infrastructure." They talk about "traditions of rivalry and personal command," clans, corruption, embezzlement as reasons why there are "few all-terrain vehicles, few radios and no coherent communications network other than the civilian mobile phone system," minimizing the role of the concerted onslaught by the fourth most powerful army in the world. They talk about lack of arms as if Israeli soldiers did not routinely burst into the homes of Palestinian policemen, demanding they produce weapons which they have long since gotten rid of for that very reason. During my time in the West Bank, a huge number of the arrests I documented were policemen of one kind or another.

One of the main reasons for the overstaffing of security forces is the lack of any other jobs. The stranglehold which Israeli closure has imposed on the Occupied Territories, and the failure of the international community to invest in the Palestinian economy, has resulted in a 75% unemployment rate among young men in Gaza, and an official rate of 20% in the West Bank, but in some cities and some seasons, it climbs to over 50%. In 1992, just before Oslo, there were 116,000 Palestinians working inside Israel; by 1996 that number had been reduced to 28,000. At that point, many Palestinians began working in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since the Intifada began in 2000, that has become increasingly difficult, and permits to work inside Israel have dwindled to a trickle. And in order to work in any Israeli-controlled territory, or even to be allowed to travel between Palestinian areas, from one's village in Salfit to nearby Nablus, for instance, men have to get clearance from the Israeli secret police, and anyone who has been in prison will not get it. So for a large number of men, jobs with the PA are the only option.

Recently the World Bank, backed by the European Commission, withheld $60 million in promised “aid” (the “” are because all World Bank aid is really debt, which ends up enriching the rich countries and destroying the poor ones) – half the allocation for the year – because the PA failed to institute structural adjustment programs that would increase unemployment and poverty. Specifically, the West is upset that the PA is spending too much on salaries – “almost its entire yearly revenue of some $1 billion.” “They have to cut salaries or cut staff,” said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank honcho in the OPT, in a January 8, 2006 interview with the New York Times. (

Yet Roberts admits that the fiscal crisis is not of the Palestinians’ making. “The checkpoints and the barrier cost the Palestinian economy about 5 percent real growth every year, Mr. Roberts said. That is a major toll, given that 10 percent real growth would be needed to solve the unemployment problem. In 1999, before this intifada and the Israeli response, the Palestinian Authority had a balanced budget and needed no outside support. Now, even though revenues have recovered to where they were in 1999, the deficit has ballooned.” The article cites a further Catch-22: The severe unemployment among youth, especially in Gaza, is causing more of them to be recruited into the militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but the strength of the militant groups is deterring the foreign investment which is cited as the only thing “that can offer enough jobs for the growing population of young men.”

Meanwhile, in another shocking development, in August a Rhode Island judge ordered all the PA’s “U.S.-based assets” frozen because of its failure to pay a $116 million judgment won by the family of Yaron and Efrat Ungar in a lawsuit against the PA and PLO. The Ungars, dual US-Israeli citizens, were killed in a Hamas bombing in 1996. Originally there was a $116 million judgment issued against Hamas (good luck collecting that one), but then the Ungar heirs sued the PLO and PA, arguing that they “provided a safe haven” for the bombers, and won. (In another twist of weirdness, the Ungar case is one of the precedents which is being used by Palestinian survivors of Israeli terror attacks to sue two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, Avi Dichter and Moshe Yaalon. (,7340,L-3185131,00.html))

But back to the frozen assets, once again, I wondered how many US-based assets the PA/PLO have. Quite a lot, it turns out. According to the Boston Globe, “The frozen assets include US holdings in a $1.3 billion Palestinian investment fund meant to finance economic development as well as bank accounts used to pay Palestinian representatives in Washington, according to lawyers and court documents filed in Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and New York. Also frozen are about $30 million in assets from the Palestinian Monetary Authority, the Palestinian equivalent of the US Federal Reserve.”

And now, finally, the bush regime has threatened that “aid to the Palestinian Authority would be reviewed and possibly reduced if it gave Hamas a role in government after this month’s Palestinian election, U.S. diplomatic sources said on Friday.” ( Okay, wait a minute. Who’s talking about “giving” them a role in government? Actually, as far as I can tell, Abu Mazen and the P.A. are doing everything in their power to prevent Hamas from gaining power. Some friends who are there have relayed the speculation that the Authority is behind the rash of kidnapping internationals and other attacks in Gaza, hoping it will reach a point that would give them an excuse to cancel the elections. Remember elections? Those things where the people get to decide who they want in power? The measure of democracy, that we’re so proud of engineering in Iraq and Afghanistan?

“The United States wants the January 25 parliamentary election to take place as scheduled to strengthen Palestinian democracy and has reluctantly accepted Hamas's participation in the poll,” the nearly incomprehensible article goes on. “But Washington is wary that Hamas, making its first bid for parliamentary seats, could make a strong enough showing against Abbas's dominant Fatah movement to win cabinet seats. U.S. diplomatic sources warned that such an outcome would prompt a review of U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians because of existing U.S. prohibitions on providing any "material support" to groups on Washington's terrorism list.”

What exactly is the bush administration suggesting that Abu Mazen do? Prevent people from voting if they’re likely to vote for Hamas, as they did in Egypt? (No, that’s right, it wasn’t Hamas, it was the Muslim Brotherhood.) Not count the votes of people who vote for Hamas, like they did in Ohio? (No, it wasn’t Hamas, it was the Democrats – almost the same thing.)

So if I understand the situation correctly, the PA is supposed to dismantle the militant groups, but it can’t pay any of its security people, and it can’t pay security people because it can’t attract foreign investment, and it can’t get foreign investors because people are voting for Hamas, and people are voting for Hamas because the PA can’t do anything, especially about unemployment and the lack of services, and the PA can’t do anything because all its assets are frozen.

All of this underlines the impossible situation the PA is in, that it is expected to function as a government, without any self-determination. Pardon the analogy, but it is as if the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils installed by the Nazis to run the ghettos) were being told by the world to figure out how to feed all the Jews in Europe on a balanced budget, while their property was confiscated and they were forbidden to go outside the ghetto.

Shortly before I left Palestine for the last time, my teammates and I had lunch with a guy who had lived in the States for a long time, who said that Arafat (who was still alive) and the entire P.A. should resign and force the Israelis to fulfill their responsibility as an occupying power. Basically, he argued, the P.A. is facilitating the occupation.

The illusive question of just what "Palestine" is rears its head even among the gliterati. The announcement of “Paradise Now”’s triumph at the Golden Globes “ruffled some feathers in Israel and elsewhere since Palestinians do not yet have a state. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that it was incorrect to refer to a Palestine before a Palestinian state has been established.” Three years ago, the Motion Picture Academy refused to consider Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” for an Oscar, on the grounds that Palestine was “not a country recognized by the United Nations,” but apparently that position has softened in the last few years. "There are other areas as well that are recognized for Foreign Language Awards purposes that are not countries — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Puerto Rico. The (Academy's Foreign Language) committee wishes to be as inclusive as possible,” the AP quoted an Academy spokesman. ( )

Well I say, if you're a state enough to be expected to pay your debts and feed your people while some other country is stealing all your resources, you're a state enough to have your movies win foreign prizes. And maybe all the money "Paradise Now" will make at the box office can pay off that $116 million judgment to the Ungars.

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