Aid gets political for Red Cross
- Aid gets political for Red Cross
By Cameron W. Barr
Christian Science Monitor
26 November 2003
HEBRON, WEST BANK--Jamal al-Absi, hollow-cheeked and grey-haired,
doesn't understand the logic.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) this month cut
off the bulk of his food supply, partly because it says it can no
longer provide humanitarian assistance that facilitates Israel's
occupation of the Palestinian territories.
But Mr. Absi, whose job in a Tel Aviv bakery disappeared shortly
after the Palestinians uprising or intifada began more than three
years ago, wonders just what he is supposed to do about the
occupation, especially if he cannot feed himself and his family.
"With your hand can you stop a knife?" he asks.
For outsiders concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
helping the Palestinians has always brought with it a dilemma:
Doesn't the aid absolve Israel of some of the costs of keeping
millions of Palestinians under occupation?
Earlier this year, the ICRC, the Swiss-based charity mainly known
for its efforts to promote respect for the laws of war, deci- ded it
could no longer maintain a food- distribution program in the West
Bank, which it initiated in mid-2002. "This program was not designed
to substitute for the responsibility of the occupying power, which
is Israel," says Vincent Bernard, ICRC spokesman in Jerusalem.
Israel has long denied that its presence in the Palestinian
territories - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - constitutes
occupation, arguing that no country was a sovereign power in those
lands before 1967, when Israel seized them during a war with Arab
countries. But in recent months Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has
acknowledged that Israel keeps the people in the territories under
The ICRC's step has caused aid workers and donor countries to
reconsider their role. "A number of people within the assistance
community, both the UN and donors, are looking at the costs of
subsidizing the occupation," says David Shearer, a UN official who
runs the Jerusalem branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs. "The ICRC decision raised the volume" of the
discussion, he adds.
The ICRC began distributing food and food vouchers in the West Bank
after a massive Israeli military operation in April 2002 that
followed a series of Palestinian attacks against Israelis. During
the past 18 months the organization has spent $ 46 million on the
program, which it says has helped some 300,000 Palestinians.
But Mr. Bernard, the ICRC spokesman, says that his organization
cannot continue what was conceived of as an emergency program
indefinitely, and especially not when Israel could do more to
alleviate Palestinian economic strife. "The Israelis have the
responsibility to minimize the economic impact of their security
measures," he says.
Absi, the unemployed bakery worker, says the aid "has been very
essential to our life." He and his wife and four children live in
two small rooms in a rundown family compound in central Hebron.
Last week he used his last ICRC food voucher to buy sugar, noodles,
and other staples. A bag of rice from an Islamic charity sits on the
floor near the room's wood burning stove.
He says he will have to turn, once again, to members of his and his
wife's family for support when the food runs out. "We have been
through a lot of suffering; it's enough," he says.
If Absi could travel out of the West Bank, he might be able to
resume his work at a bakery in Tel Aviv.
The problem is that Israel - to prevent attacks against its citizens
- sharply curtails the movement of Palestinians, both within the
West Bank and Gaza Strip and from those territories into Israel.
A World Bank report issued earlier this year said that the
Palestinian economy had shrunk by a third during the first two years
of the current conflict, which began in the fall of 2000, and that
some 60 percent of the Palestinian population now lives in poverty.
"The proximate cause of the Palestinian economic collapse is
closure," the Bank wrote, defining the term as "restrictions imposed
by [Israel] on the movement of Palestinian goods and people."
Israeli and Palestinian officials alike criticize the ICRC's move,
saying it will increase extremism and thus may exacerbate the
conflict. "If [aid agencies and international organizations] will
resign from providing humanitarian support to the Palestinians,"
says Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "it will not advance
the chances of peace. Maybe it will make Palestinians more bitter
and some of them more vicious and some of them more extreme and that
will not enhance the chances of a meaningful peace dialogue between
us and them."
"I know the Israeli government wants an occupation and they don't
want to pay for it," says Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority
But he adds that any broad refusal to aid the Palestinians will
"destroy the peace process."
"So please," he adds, addressing himself to the ICRC and other
organizations, "continue your help to the Palestinian people."
While aid workers may be discussing the appropriateness of providing
aid, there is no sign that other organizations are contemplating a
pullout or closing down programs.
The UN is appealing to donors for $ 305 million in funding to
provide humanitarian aid in 2004; the total amount of annual
international assistance to the Palestinians is about $ 1 billion.
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