Aid, Solidarity, and the Search for Accountability
For the past two days, in the halls of Birzeit University, against the backdrop of the hills of Ramallah, students from around the world have convened to discuss strategies to hold Israel accountable. On this campus, which was the site of many of the early moments of the first intifada, the conference, run by Right to Education is giving hope that a new uprising, a non-violent, energetic, tenacious campaign, is gaining momentum.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the building of the separation wall between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) illegal. Construction, however, continued unabated. A year later, members of Palestinian civil society put out a call for Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS), to hold Israel accountable until it complies with international law. The movement has been endorsed by over 170 Palestinian parties, organizations, and trade unions, and is essentially a call from the civil society of Palestine to the civil society of the world to join in solidarity, to stand up in our capacity as citizens and consumers, as individuals and communities, against the violations of the rights of Palestinians.
Indeed, Israel continues to break many international laws and surprise the public with its ongoing aggression: the building of settlements in the OPT is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention; the Goldstone Report declared that Israel’s operations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead amounted to war crimes; the International Committee of the Red Cross has condemned the siege of Gaza; and many around the world have been shocked at the violence Israel displayed against the members aboard the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla. Amidst all these declarations of discontent, which nevertheless fail to amount to any concrete action, Palestinian civil society activists are saying: Enough is enough. Israel must be held accountable.
When one considers the word “accountability,” a host of connotations emerges, such as accounting, counting, numbering and enumerating. Despite the fact that, until the present BDS campaign, little has been done to keep Israel accountable, there are many other kinds of counting and accounting going on in this conflict. Finances and budgets, and all the accoutrements of economic plans, are significant actors in this drama. The website WhoProfits.org aims to expose how Israeli and international companies benefit from the occupation, from the construction of infrastructure, through control of the population and economic exploitation. It investigates the position of the settlements and the economic benefits they provide. BDS is a way of engaging with the economics of the occupation, a non-violent way to expose and punish all those who benefit from the abuse of human rights.
A central aspect of the BDS message is that, in a world as interconnected and integrated as ours is, this conflict is not simply local, isolated to an argument between Israelis and Palestinians. With our global economy and webs of commerce and technology, many of us are complicit in the crimes that are perpetrated against Palestinians. It is therefore, the responsibility of individuals and communities globally to examine the ways in which their actions facilitate this conflict. BDS is thus an attempt to hold, not only Israel, but the international community accountable as well.
But advocates for BDS have an even more penetrating point to make: It is not only the explicit cases of profiting from private contracts and construction that are important to expose. It is crucial to examine ways in which the entire structure of aid and development in the OPT also works subtly to facilitate the occupation. Activists articulate frustration with the fact that the international community treats the situation here as if it were the effect of a natural disaster. “Palestine was not hit by a tsunami” one presenter at the Right to Education conference said. We don’t need food; we need rights. Because of legal and physical restrictions on trade – how the delays at the borders make exports inefficient and uncompetitive, for example - a huge portion of the Palestinian economy comes from foreign aid. But what are the effects of this economy of aid? What are the webs of accountability to which it gives rise?
In offices both governmental and non-governmental across the OPT, thousands of employees are forced to attend constantly to counting costs, drafting grant proposals, applying for funding. One NGO worker said recently that the non-profit sector is a surprisingly close mirror of the private sector and is fundamentally based on a market model: You must evaluate your projects, quantify your results and demonstrate to your foreign funders that your organization is effective and efficient and worthy investment. In this competitive system, amidst all the pressures to perpetuate their own existence, many organizations are forced to focus on tasks that are not in line with their original priorities. In a survey done by the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, 67% of Palestinians who were polled thought that foreign aid is given not according to the needs of Palestinians, but according to the political interests of the donors. While they agree that aid is beneficial in easing living conditions, a majority nevertheless believe that international aid helps reinforce the occupation, rather than supports Palestinian interests (see http://www.ndc.ps/uploads/File/Researches/Tracking%20External%20Donor%20Funding.pdf). USAID, for example, has been particularly troublesome on this front, in its participation in funding the occupation. Reports in May revealed that the agency is helping in the construction of an “apartheid road,” which will provide Palestinians with a separate road system to connect Palestinian cities, and thereby give settlers in the West Bank exclusive access to the main roads. Essentially, the road system will limit Palestinians' freedom of movement, isolating them to select enclaves, while increasing and easing the travel of settlers, making the settlements more attractive places to which to move (see Jonathan Cook’s article, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11267.shtm). Far from holding Israel accountable, therefore, or even ensuring that aid efforts and NGOs are
accountable to Palestinians, it is international donors who are pulling the strings, giving or withholding at their own whims, and meanwhile demanding that Palestinians and aid workers on the ground be held accountable to the desires expressed, and decisions made, in Brussels and New York.
It is in this context that members of the BDS campaign are trying to shift the priorities of the struggle. It is incumbent upon the international community to recognize its levels of complicity, the fact that it cannot buy off its obligations with gestures of benevolence and charity. Efforts are fruitless unless they involve keeping Israel accountable. It is time to hear the message and to join the call of Palestinian civil society. It is time to offer, not aid, but solidarity.
Leah H is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.