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"We focus on doing things right, instead of doing the right things"

January 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm

This quote from an international aid worker in Jerusalem prefaces a new briefing paper from Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. Written by Dr. Jason Hart and Claudia Lo Forte, “Protecting Palestinian children from political violence – the role of the international community” provides some interesting reading. It highlights the fear that the objectives of the international aid agencies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPts) may well be very different to the requirements of the people the agencies are trying to help. “It seems that for the people themselves [Palestinians living under Israeli occupation] it’s not just about responding when damage has been done in terms of, you know, psychosocial services. It’s actually about preventing that damage from happening in the first place.” The response from the “bilateral donor agency officer in Jerusalem to the researcher’s statement is telling: “Well, that’s a political agenda and one that I’m probably not best to go into with you here.”

In a nutshell, that tells you all you need to know about humanitarian efforts to help the Palestinians: it is a crisis created by a political situation which cries out for a political solution; humanitarian NGOs can, at best, treat the symptoms, but, as this report points out, it is “essential” that there should be “a focus on root causes rather than effects”. All of those causes, of course, go back to one thing: Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestine. As the unnamed “bilateral donor agency officer” suggested, politics are at the fore in this issue. The net result is that “Western donor governments – including the EU – generally choose not to challenge Israel on practices that clearly put the lives of Palestinian children at risk, preferring to support ad hoc efforts to improve conditions or equip families to cope with the intolerable.” Even aid agencies are being put under political “pressure” to “limit any public advocacy that might embarrass Israel”. Any NGOs which opt neither to stay neutral nor stay quiet, all too often find themselves listed as “Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entities” by a “United States and thus… the pro-Israel lobby that significantly shapes” the agenda of the American government.

Although this report from the Refugee Studies Centre does not address the problems facing Palestinian children in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the root cause of the problems facing all Palestinian refugees is the same regardless of their location: Israel’s occupation of their land.

In Britain, charities are expected not to get too involved in politics; they are registered in order to provide charitable services with a public interest and political activity on its own is not defined as a charitable service. The UK charity regulator, the Charity Commission, advises that “charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions… where such change would support the charity’s purposes.” Charities, says the Commission, “can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed.” When the focus of those purposes is help for Palestinians in desperate need, however, the charities involved are targeted by the very influential Israel lobby, so caution becomes the watchword. In the effort to make sure that charitable funds are used for lawful humanitarian purposes only, transparency and clarity are paramount, and rightly so. Questions must be asked, though, about whether British charities fall into the trap set out by that international aid worker in Jerusalem whose quote forms the heading of this article: “We focus on doing things right”, which is a perfectly laudable thing to do, “rather than doing the right things”, which means that the humanitarian sector may be missing the point of their activities. This is particularly so in the case of “protecting Palestinian children from political violence”.

Last year in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, I was present in a discussion group attended by Palestinian refugees and representatives of donor countries and NGOs which support the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). One of those representatives was from the US Embassy in Beirut and he was delighted to inform the refugees that his embassy was paying to build a (Lebanese) police station in the camp “to protect the refugees”. One refugee raised his hand and spoke with increasing incredulity: “You talk about ‘protecting’ us,” he cried, “but we have nothing to protect: no rights, no home, no land; nothing!” His point was simple; the police station would be there to control the refugees, not protect them. The same could be said about Palestinian security forces, supported financially by many Western countries, which are basically an arm of their Israeli equivalents and cannot even protect Palestinian children who are “beaten up by [Israeli] settlers on the way to school”. The Palestinian security forces are there to control the Palestinians, not protect them. The American diplomat left that session in northern Lebanon to travel back to Beirut in his armoured 4×4 (he wouldn’t travel in the UNRWA buses like the rest of us) completely bemused; he just didn’t get it.

And that’s the problem facing many aid agencies and donor governments. They have been force-fed the Israeli version of events in the Middle East for so long that they don’t get it either: they’ve lost the plot. The “characterisation of the setting of the occupied [sic] Palestinian territory (oPt) as one of humanitarian crisis arising due to conflict between two more or less equivalent parties”, adhered to by governments and many aid agencies alike, “does not reflect the realities on the ground”. The authors of this briefing paper claim that “It would be more accurate to frame the oPt as a human rights and protection crisis in which efforts to deliver aid and support must be accompanied by efforts at the political level”.

Supporters of the “so-called Middle East Peace Process” would argue that aid is indeed “accompanied by efforts at the political level”; to a certain extent, they’d be correct. However, it could also be argued that those efforts are themselves compromised by adherence to the Israeli-led narrative “that significantly shapes the agenda” of governments from Washington to London, Paris to Bonn, in the EU and the UN. Condemnation of Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes, the Wall, settlement building and any or all of “Israel’s violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child” is always tempered by condemnation of the occasional rockets fired from Gaza into Southern Israel. I don’t condone any violent acts of aggression, but in their attempt to appear balanced and neutral, governments give a legitimacy to those Israeli violations which are grossly disproportionate to the acts to which they are claimed to be a response. These governments don’t “focus on root causes” at all, of course; they look merely at the effects. If they were to look at cause and effect properly they’d find that the prime cause of all this “political violence” was the establishment of the State of Israel on a land already lived-in by another people, the Palestinians. Palestine was never, as that Zionist myth claims, “a land without a people for a people without a land”. The international law which Israel delights in violating with apparent impunity gives Palestinians the right to resist the occupation of their land with whatever means are at their disposal; international law gives no similar right to occupy and colonise that land with settlers from across the world, enticed by government subsidies and financial incentives.

One guest at the launch of the Refugee Studies Centre briefing paper was a Palestinian health professional and academic who was in no doubt that while the briefing paper was useful, the international community’s role in protecting Palestinian children from Israel’s political violence is very clear: end the occupation. Focus on that, she pleaded, and the rest will fall into place. It is hard to disagree with her.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.