by Larry Garber
Twenty years ago, I was assigned to manage the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) program in the West Bank and Gaza. At the time, the region was awash with optimism. Peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians seemed poised to achieve a lasting solution to the long-standing conflict, the economies on both sides of the Green Line were booming, and terror incidents were few and far between.
Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the USAID program in the Palestinian Territories had become an integral component of the broader U.S. government peace-making strategy. USAID supported efforts to build the requisite institutions of an independent and democratic Palestinian state. Programs sought to strengthen key economic ministries, parliament, and the judiciary, and to provide scholarships for study in the United States to young Palestinians who would form a leadership cadre in their newly independent state. Equally important, with the explicit support of the Israeli government, USAID was designing major new roads in the West Bank, a desalination plant for the water-starved population in Gaza, and an industrial estate on the Israeli-Palestinian border to facilitate investment in the high-tech sector.
These efforts came to a crashing halt in October 2000 with the onset of the second intifada. Inevitably, calls emerged to shutter the USAID Mission and to eliminate all assistance to the Palestinian people. However, the emerging policy consensus was that withdrawal would be seen as a concession to the perpetrators of terror and that U.S. interests, even during those bleak times, were better served by continuing to support the majority of Palestinians, who were not implicated in the violence and who yearned for a better future for their children.
Despite significant political and security constraints, USAID’s ambitious pre-intifada development programs were transformed into successful efforts to alleviate the humanitarian consequences of the intifada reality. Funds went to build classrooms and health clinics, address water shortages and wastewater flows, and provide work opportunities for Palestinians who could no longer travel to Israel for jobs. The programs facilitated continued engagement among Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. leaders, and demonstrated the long-term U.S. commitment to the Palestinian people.
Implementing this multi-faceted program amidst the frequent and horrific terrorist attacks and the Israeli government’s military responses was not a simple undertaking. Crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territories required obtaining the necessary permits from the Israeli authorities, and U.S. law required extensive vetting of Palestinian partners to ensure that they were not affiliated with terrorist organizations. USAID’s major asset in facilitating these efforts were the talented staff of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians who throughout the worst days of the intifada remained committed to a common goal and who ensured that the USAID mission remained an oasis of cooperation and mutual respect.
A relative calm was restored in 2004. During the ensuing fifteen years, USAID’s Palestinian programs grew dramatically, addressing critical health needs, building physical and institutional infrastructure, promoting the growth of key economic sectors, and, perhaps most important, providing Palestinians with hope for an improved quality of life. The Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2006 required a reorientation of efforts away from working with Hamas-controlled entities, as per U.S. laws, but this did not mean the cessation of programming in Gaza. And as had been true from the outset, the programs were carried out with the cooperation and support of the Israeli military authorities, who appreciated the political and economic significance of these efforts.
Since 1993, annual assistance to the Palestinians on a per capita basis has been among the highest provided by the U.S. government to any country or region. However, for the past two years, the Trump administration has sought to use the assistance program as a stick to force Palestinian acquiescence to a unilaterally drafted peace plan rather than as a carrot reflecting mutual respect. Consequently, the USAID mission is now in its death throes.
No program funds were appropriated for Palestinian programs for either 2018 or 2019. Moreover, the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which was adopted in 2018 and which goes into effect February 1, allows victims of terror to sue recipients of U.S. assistance funds, including the Palestinian Authority (PA), in U.S. courts. Given pending judgments in the billions of dollars against the PA, on December 26 PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Palestinians would no longer accept any funds from the United States, including security assistance to professionalize Palestinian security, which contributed to constructive Palestinian-Israeli security interactions for the past 15 years.
USAID employees, many of whom have worked for the Mission for more than two decades, are looking for new jobs. USAID’s implementing partners are dismissing their staff in response to stop work orders effective January 31. Infrastructure projects are being terminated early, even at the risk of leaving behind dangerous work zones and wasting U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.
The practical impacts are consequential, but more significant are the breaches of trust and the threats of destabilization in the region. Palestinians appreciate not only the new schools, rebuilt roads, advanced training, and access to technologies, but also the thousands of constructive relationships fostered by these multitude of programs. USAID’s absence will reinforce Palestinian assumptions regarding the perceived biases of U.S. policy in the region.
At some point, meaningful peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis will once again resume, perhaps as in the Oslo peace process without direct US mediation. As an inveterate optimist, I am convinced that there is a deal that can serve the mutual interests of both parties, and which would be of tremendous benefit to the United States, even if it’s absent from the negotiations. Shutting down USAID and terminating assistance programs will have detrimental short-term consequences and will make more costly, complicated, and time-consuming a resumption of efforts in the future.
By contrast, approving an amendment to the ATCA to exempt humanitarian and development assistance provided through nongovernmental organizations might contribute to a rebuilding of trust between US officials and Palestinian counterparts, and counter the growing cynicism regarding U.S. intentions in the region.
Larry Garber, a former senior official at the US Agency for International Development, served as USAID Mission Director for the West Bank/Gaza from 1999-2004.