Husam Zomlot
Gulf News (Opinion)
March 9, 2009 - 12:00am

Last week's donor conference at Sharm Al Shaikh for the reconstruction of Gaza produced no great news. The pledged $5 billion (Dh18.35 billion) for a two-year recovery and reconstruction package will help to rebuild houses and infrastructure; only for Israel to destroy them again at the earliest opportunity. This has been a recurring theme in Palestine for the past 15 years.

International aid to Palestine has been reduced from an act of political support to an act of humanitarian assistance. Unable and unwilling to challenge Israel's decades' long destructive policies and practices, the world has been picking up the pieces; relieving Israel of its responsibilities under international law and footing the bill. In the process, external aid has been used not for the reconstruction of Palestine, but to prolong the occupation.

The only good news is the decision taken by Arab Gulf states to set up a fund for the reconstruction of Gaza. It envisages the creation of a special body to oversee the pledged $1.6 billion and setting up a joint office in Gaza to assess and implement reconstruction projects independently. Beyond the reported purpose of bypassing Palestinian divisions - one of the conditions for the funding is Palestinian reconciliation and unity - the significance of this move is the breaking away from the long practice of channelling Arab financial contributions through international bodies and mechanisms. Controlled not by experts but politicians, the existing institutional settings for Palestine have been unfitting at best and a "stick" against the aid-dependent Palestinians at worst.

According to the experience of several hotspots in the world, successful recovery and reconstruction programmes involve a triple transition: a security transition from war to peace; a democratic transition from authoritarianism to participatory forms of governance; and a socioeconomic transition, including both the rebuilding of economic capacities and generally the movement from a controlled to a market economy.

From the advent of the Oslo peace process to the present, international aid to the Palestinians has almost exclusively focused on the socioeconomic transition. However, Palestinians have never made it through the first transition and remain (both in Gaza and the West Bank) under Israel's full military occupation. They are subjected to the latter's relentless campaigns aimed at reducing the Palestinians from a vibrant nation with legitimate political aspirations to a humanitarian case; and from a situation of economic development and prosperity to a charity.

The logic has been that economic advance predicates political progress, that economic prosperity will somehow resolve the protracted security and political issues, and that in Palestine, and only in Palestine, peace and political advancement are preconditioned on economic development. Worse, when the Palestinians were able to advance in the second phase (democratic transition) towards an inclusive political system (the Makkah agreement and the subsequent national unity government), the international community boycotted it, contributing in turn to the current Palestinian schism.

Placing the cart before the horse, and treating the symptom not the disease, is a business that has gone on for far too long. Indeed Palestinians have a long way to go in terms of accountability, transparency and prudent public institutions and policy, but the economic outcome has been primarily a function of occupation.

In the past two years, there has been a lot of talk by the international community about the West Bank being a "model" for Gaza, as the latter received less attention, if any. The result of this thinking, not to mention its immorality and impracticality, is what we are discussing today - Gaza's total collapse and ways to mitigate it. The West Bank and Gaza, while geographically separated by Israel since 1993, must be treated as one entity that requires a holistic developmental approach.

It is in this light that the Arabisation of Arab financial and political support to the Palestinians is long overdue. Dedicated to empowering the Palestinians to emerge from occupation and pass the first stage of "war to peace" transition, a paradigm shift and an alternative Arab discourse and framework is calling.

During my brief visit to the UAE, I encountered world-class Arab professionals and institutions that are capable of not only competing with international organisations, but far exceed in their knowledge, competency, commitment and above all sympathy to the particularities of the region and the Palestinian situation.

At this acute juncture of their history, Palestinians need Arab support to reorient their society and economy to challenge the occupation. This requires long-term thinking and planning.

For a start, there should be a move to open Arab markets to Palestinian products and services under preferential trade arrangements and long-term contracts. Also Palestinian students should be given access to Arab universities. Moreover, hosting training and youth camps for the young generation, sponsoring civil society activities and linking them to regional and international platforms should go hand-in-hand. Such joint activities can help in the immediate recovery and reconstruction efforts in Palestine.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017