Threading the needle

Editorial Notebook

May 19, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

As they traveled from one Capitol Hill office to the next, Tom Garofalo and his colleagues from Catholic Relief Services made their pitch: Humanitarian aid to impoverished Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must feed more than hungry bodies. It must nourish minds and spirits if peace is the goal, and classrooms would be a logical place to start.

But at the mention of schools, one congressional staffer stopped them: We can't do that; the Palestinian government teaches hate.

It's a reaction that relief workers have faced as they try to do their jobs without running afoul of U.S. policy that prohibits assistance to the Palestinian Authority. That's a pretty tough needle to thread when you consider the deplorable living conditions of Palestinians, the violence permeating their lives, the deterioration of civil society, the absence of a functioning government and the lack of a viable peace process.

The need is so great and yet the elected Palestinian government is dominated by the Islamic militant group Hamas, sponsor of a large social service network and patron of suicide bombers. Hamas' attempt to govern jointly with the moderate Fatah group was dissolving last week in renewed fighting.

And it couldn't have helped the cause of the CRS workers that during their recent visit to the Hill, American media were reporting on a Palestinian children's program that featured a Mickey Mouse look-alike promoting the liberation of Jerusalem, Iraq and all Muslim countries "invaded by the murderers."

American relief workers in that part of the world confront a dual reality: the one experienced in the villages where Palestinians live under Israeli occupation and the one imposed by America's support for Israel and its war on terrorism.

Since Hamas won the January 2006 parliamentary elections, the United States and its allies have withheld millions in foreign aid that financed the workings of government. As a result, Palestinian workers have gone unpaid, the economy is devastated, nearly half of Palestinians don't have enough food to feed their families or are at risk of food shortages. The United Nations estimates that 68 percent of Palestinians live in poverty.

Food aid does reach Palestinians despite the Israeli security barricade, checkpoints and closures. But relief agencies that want to improve other aspects of Palestinian life find it difficult because of the American "no contact" policy with the PA.

How do you provide medical supplies to a community health clinic overseen by the PA's health ministry? Or repair a road, establish a PTA in a public school, maintain a village well?

It's a conundrum for agencies like Lutheran World Relief that seek out other avenues, such as the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, a Lutheran institution that has served Palestinians for decades. But as Tim McCully, vice president for international programs, points out, the medical bills of many patients are paid for by the Palestinian versions of Medicare and Medicaid.

CRS has had to restrict its values education programs to Palestinian students in Christian schools, who represent a fraction of children in West Bank towns.

"Our fundamental belief is, you are not going to be able achieve a durable peace without opportunities for people's development and stability, and simultaneously you are not going to be able to develop the climate for development without peace," Mr. McCully says.

The Bush administration's failed peace policy has left Palestinians bereft of any hope for an end to occupation. Isolating Hamas hasn't strengthened PA President Mahmoud Abbas, it has deepened societal rifts and pushed Palestinians further outside the mainstream.

"Desperate people don't make social change," says Mr. Garofalo, CRS representative in Jerusalem.

The U.S.-led boycott may have accomplished one goal, crippling the Hamas government, but at the cost of another - stamping out terrorism. It has sustained Hamas' military wing, which last week claimed credit for more than 80 rocket attacks into southern Israel. And Gaza, among the most densely populated places in the world, resembled a war zone as factional fighting resumed, leaving dozens dead and drawing retaliatory fire by the Israeli military.

Not many American relief workers visit there; it's too dangerous.

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