Aid and Occupation: Maintaining the Status Quo in Palestine Aid and Occupation
This article foregrounds how international aid and the Israeli occupation intersect in the historically prosperous West Bank agricultural village of Jayyus; with most of its lands isolated behind the Israeli Wall, Jayyus is now aid-dependent. While material aid plays a larger role in sustaining the village, it is through “advocacy work” (a form of international aid largely unaddressed in the literature) that Jayyusis experience aid on a daily basis. The article examines the paradoxes of dependence and subordination seen from the vantage point of local communities under the jurisdiction of an occupying power and in the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state. Also shown is how the routinization of aid both obscures the ongoing status of occupation and has become an important mechanism that sustains it.
Walking through Ramallah, the base of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, one could think that the imposing white stone buildings of the PA ministries are emblematic of a larger state structure. This impression begins to fade when the metal “Funded By” signs posted in front of each building come into view, underscoring the PA’s dependence on foreign assistance to operate even at the level of administrative buildings. “Funded By” signs are posted on most public buildings throughout the West Bank: ministries, village municipalities, schools, health clinics, and community centers. Symbols and objects of aid are as ubiquitous and familiar to Palestinians in daily life as Israeli military paraphernalia and infrastructure, and are intermingled in the most mundane daily activities: flour sacks, once distributed to families via the World Food Programme (WFP), used to pack olives during the harvest; backpacks, bearing the signa of UNICEF, worn by children walking to school; notebooks, once distributed at a workshop for women, used for homework assignments; logos of the International Red Cross on medical equipment in local clinics; the white $40,000 SUVs with the UN logo.
These iconic emblems underscore that West Bank Palestinian society is, in fact, entirely dependent upon and influenced by various forms of foreign assistance. What normally would be government services are effectively administered through aid groups. Collectively, aid agencies—particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—supply essential social services to West Bank Palestinians, providing health care, technical assistance in education and agriculture, housing and legal aid, human rights support and training, and so on. Such aid work operates through various substructures of funding and implementation involving international donors and agencies, the PA, and local Palestinian NGOs (PNGOs).[i] As Rema Hammami rightly indicates, “The scope and size of the sector attests to the importance of NGOs as a response to occupation and statelessness.”[ii]
Despite an emerging critique of development and NGO work in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt),[iii] there are few detailed studies of how communities so dependent on aid interact with the “dynamics of development.” This article aims to foreground this perspective—a view of aid “from below” that examines how international assistance and occupation overlap in the daily life of a West Bank Palestinian village, Jayyus, in the shadow of the Israeli Wall.[iv]
From such a vantage point, the contradictions within the occupation’s administrative triad—Israel, the PA, and international aid donors—are rendered more apparent. At the local level, Israel’s interventions and military policies (implemented on the ground by the Israeli Defense Forces-IDF) not only cut off access to essential resources (e.g., land and water) but also greatly limit the scope and authority of municipal PA administrators; international aid workers are left to bridge the gap by providing both the material assistance and protection that are otherwise denied to local residents. In other words, aid groups, by virtue of their international status, are able to accomplish what elected governors and mayors are not.
Jayyus is the recipient of two forms of aid: material assistance for such things as basic supplies and funds for local projects, and non-material aid that falls under the broad category of advocacy. It is this latter type of international assistance, involving a range of activities from human rights monitoring to journalism and awareness-based tourism, which will be my primary focus. Aid in the form of advocacy work, with its dual aspects of witnessing and protection, is largely unaddressed in the literature on aid, the bulk of which is devoted to material assistance and development. More importantly, it is the primary channel through which the people of Jayyus encounter international assistance in their everyday lives.
The ethnography presented here is based on over twenty months of research conducted between January 2005 and September 2007. It is part of a wider anthropological study of occupation among farming communities in what had been the breadbasket of the West Bank.[v] The findings emerged in the course of my daily work and involvement in farming, household tasks, and ongoing interactions with families and farmers. Sharing the minutiae of everyday life through an anthropological study of this nature aims to document social life in process, in the intimate daily context through which social conditions are negotiated.
When I began my research, Jayyusis had been living with the Israeli Wall for just over two years. By that time, the international media attention initially focused on Jayyus had shifted to newly targeted localities along the Wall’s projected route, leaving Jayyusi farmers to face the everyday implications of its mundane routinization. Conditions soon began to worsen: Hamas’s sweeping victory over the long-dominant Fatah in the January 2006 PA parliamentary elections had far-reaching consequences for Jayyus, as for all of Palestinian society. The Israeli and the international boycott of the PA (because of Hamas’s new participation in government) resulted in the non-payment of salaries, large-scale cutbacks in essential services, and further crippled the PA’s already limited administrative capacity. Significantly, whereas approximately 1,500 NGOs were working in the West Bank and Gaza before January 2006, their number doubled to over 3,000 in the months that followed. At the same time, what to do about “the Hamas victory” became the new political and media preoccupation, eclipsing the impact of the Wall and the dire consequences of the boycott on local communities such as Jayyus.
Jayyus’s location in the northwestern agricultural plains, beyond the main urban areas like Ramallah and Jerusalem, offers an important perspective on Palestinian society for two reasons relevant to the discussion here. First, the farming communities of the region, historically the economic backbone of the West Bank, experienced the Wall and the IDF-imposed mobility restrictions in especially acute ways. On a macro level, the consequences of the Wall and tightened restrictions transformed this northern region from a main center of food production and distribution to a periodic recipient of food aid within the span of just a few years. At the micro level, individual farmers and households throughout the area faced military oppression that contributed to a sense of extreme insecurity. This goes hand in hand with the diminishing ability to generate income and be self-sufficient, even as the agricultural artery of the West Bank, and interconnected systems of food production, were being destroyed.
Second, this northwest region was the first to be subjected to the devastating consequences of the Wall since the first phase of its construction began there in 2002.
1. Aid infrastructure operating in the West Bank has been discussed extensively elsewhere and will not be addressed in detail here. See Alla Tartir, The Role of International Aid in Development: The Case of Palestine 1994–2008 (Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011); Rema Hammami, “Palestinian NGOs since Oslo: From NGO Politics to Social Movements?” Middle East Report, no. 214 (Spring 2000), pp. 16–19; Mahdi Abdul Hadi, “NGO Action and the Question of Palestine: Challenges and Prospects,” PASSIA, Jerusalem, 1997; Rex Brynen, “International AID to The West Bank and Gaza: A Primer,” Journal of Palestine Studies 25, no. 2 (Winter 1996), pp. 46–53; Denis J. Sullivan, “NGOs in Palestine: Agents of Development and Foundation of Civil Society,” Journal of Palestine Studies 25, no. 3 (Spring 1996), pp. 93–100.
3. See Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar, “The Intifada and Aid Industry: The Impact of the New Liberal Agenda on the Palestinian NGOs,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 23, no. 1–2 (2003), pp. 205–14; Islah Jad, “NGOs: Between Buzzwords and Social Movements,” Development in Practice 17, no. 4–5 (August 2007), pp. 622–29.