Western Aid to Palestinians in Gaza Is Numbing Them Into Passivity

One needn’t be a humanitarian to see that, while Israel is emphatically not secured by the immiseration of Gazans, it may be imperiled by their despair

Marilyn Garson
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Palestinians filling bottles and jerricans with drinking water at Al-Shati refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 22, 2017.
Palestinians filling bottles and jerricans with drinking water at Al-Shati refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 22, 2017. Credit: HOSAM SALEM / NurPhoto
Marilyn Garson

In Gaza, in the name of aid and the relief of suffering, our Western governments have made deadening, anomalous choices.

While we seek an end to the occupation, we also own the broken international aid response to the Palestinians who are living under occupation. It is insufficient for donors or agencies to protest when their activities are obstructed. We must also challenge the nature of the activities themselves.

Even IDF Major General Yoav Mordechai, co-ordinator of Israel’s activities in the Occupied Territories through COGAT, urges Gaza’s economic development. One needn’t be a humanitarian to see that, while Israel is emphatically not secured by the immiseration of Gazans, it may be imperiled by their despair.

Of course, the blockade itself is the first anomaly of Gaza, and the immediate cause of Gazans’ suffering. That our Western governments tolerate the blockade wall – having dismantled so many other restraints of movement and trade – is the second anomaly. The composition of our aid to the people behind that wall is the third: we bankroll the maintenance of the blockade regime.

I arrived in Gaza in 2011, after five years in Afghanistan. During those years, donor states had grown phobic about letting anyone depend on relief. Poor Afghans increasingly worked for their cash, or their food, and they often received help for a shorter time. Globally as with many national social welfare programs, donors attached a lengthening list of conditions to relief aid.

Except in Gaza. To Gaza, the same donor states sent (and continue to send) the most numbing, dependent forms of food relief.

Emergency is properly a moment of exception, when immediate needs supercede the longer-term good. Emergency mechanisms save lives without attempting to improve conditions or address causes. That life-saving regime yields to – or increasingly merges with – longer term strategies which enable people to earn, feed themselves, and recover.

Except in Gaza. Gazans have been largely suspended in their emergency regime for three generations. For nearly 70 years, aid actors and our donor governments have distorted emergency relief into a politics of passivity. Work? Gazans wait four years for a place in UNRWA’s temporary work program.

As I used to argue with donors, it is not true that nothing works in Gaza. The problem is that very little is tried. My team protested donors’ narrow choices with our motto, Gaza > Relief.

Elsewhere and notwithstanding all the shortcomings of the aid world, our bilateral agencies do not spend our money to render eager workers passive for half a century. Our unbalanced aid to Gaza enables the blockade, assumes the obligations of the occupying power, and disables the people. The aid commodities and services we purchase in Israel, in Israeli currency, further offset Israel’s cost of maintaining the occupation.

This is ours to fix, as individuals and as the ultimate funders of our bilateral aid budgets.

I worked with Gazan university graduates for four years. Educated, wired into the world yet unable to reach it; a generation of Gazans is becoming parents without ever leaving Gaza or meeting an Israeli. Or finding paid work.

I have read hundreds and hundreds of CVs that list years of university achievement, a bit of voluntary work and then white space on the page. Blank years of looking. There are no jobs to find, and one graduating class is soon overtaken by the next. In Gaza’s throttled economy, unemployment perversely rises with education, and Gazan graduates are, of course, prevented from going anywhere else to find work.

My team used to say that the hardest job in the world was to look for a job in Gaza.

It is possible to hire and work with Gazans in a few industries, notably IT. IT enables high-value exports through the blockade. Gaza has IT hubs and intermediaries to facilitate recruitment and payment.

Each time we hire a Gazan freelancer or firm, we validate that person’s hard work and perseverance. We engage with one Palestinian as a whole, professional adult; in a relationship other than that of charitable giver and recipient. That person improves one household’s prospects.

That’s the nano-fix.

To fix it at scale, we must insist that our own aid money be spent productively. This is not a mysterious or highly technical demand. Our governments and aid agencies balance poverty relief with economic developments elsewhere, to realize recipients’ right to work and support their families. Why not Gaza?

Work does not substitute for a real political solution, and economic development would not normalize the occupation. On the contrary: emergency relief overlooks the cause of its need. Shipments of food do not ask why people are unable to feed themselves. Work would shine a light on the blockade’s obstruction of Gaza’s economy. Work partners and donors would have commercial reasons to exert the leverage that our governments presently forego. Professional interactions would bring attention to the capable young people whose lives are being squandered.

Gaza’s population was 80,000 in 1948. It has grown twenty-five times on this emergency regime. You would be kind to feed four refugees, but you would be mad to keep feeding them until a hundred people were penned up in your backyard, asking to work.

Marilyn Garson lived and worked in Gaza 2011 – 2015, as Economic Director of Mercy Corps, a consultant to UNRWA’s Gaza Director of Operations, and co-founder of the Gaza Gateway social enterprise for technology employment. She now writes from New Zealand. Her blog is Transforming Gaza.