Washington - President Bush trumpeted a new aid package for the Palestinians on Monday, but congressional sources and aid groups say that Bush’s proposal is actually just a shifting around of existing funds that will provide almost no new help on the ground.
In a broad-ranging speech Monday about the Palestinian situation, Bush promised to provide the Palestinians with $190 million in aid and $80 million in security assistance. The aid package is part of a general push by the Bush administration to support the Palestinian Authority after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pushed Hamas out of the government.
Bush spoke about “strengthening our financial commitment,” but people involved with the process say that nearly all the aid money announced by Bush was scheduled to go to the Palestinians at the beginning of this year. Some of the funds have already been flowing to refugee agencies, while others were frozen when Hamas came to power and are now being unfrozen.
“We don’t expect to see any significant change as far as U.S. funding is concerned; we are looking to other countries for aid,” said an official, who requested anonymity, with one of the aid groups working in the West Bank.
Bush’s speech was his first major address on the Palestinian situation since Hamas chased the ruling Fatah party out of Gaza, and since Hamas was pushed out of the Palestinian government. Bush spoke about the need to support Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Before the speech, the administration began planning a regional peace conference expected to take place this fall and to be chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The aid package is supposed to be a pillar of the new Middle East strategy, and Bush began his speech by discussing the money. After enumerating the various sums, Bush said, “With all of this assistance, we are showing the Palestinian people that a commitment to peace leads to the generous support of the United States.”
It has long been clear that whatever Bush’s intentions, when it comes to aid for the Palestinians his options are limited by legislation passed by Congress over the past decade, restricting aid to the West Bank and Gaza. One of these impediments is a ban on providing any direct aid to the P.A., the government of the Palestinians.
In the new aid package announced by Bush this week, the biggest chunk — $140 million — is the budget that is already scheduled for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. This money, some of which goes to Palestinians in Lebanon, has already been flowing since the beginning of the year.
The other $50 million of the $190 million in aid is money for the United States Agency for International Development. This money was transferred to the agency at the beginning of the year, but it has been frozen because of Hamas’s participation in the government.
The $80 million for security forces has been planned since last year, but it was held up due to bureaucratic complications.
A congressional staff member said: “Congress will have no problem with this money. There is no new money here, only re-programming.”
In addition to the talk of money for this year, Congress is now considering next year’s aid budget for the Palestinians. The sums being considered do not represent any increase, and they maintain a strict ban on direct funding for the P.A.
While Bush’s speech may not lead to any increase in funding, aid workers say that during the past month they have seen a smoother working relationship with the United States.
During most of the past year, the American government asked nongovernmental organizations working in the Palestinian territories to avoid any contact with the P.A. because of Hamas. The aid groups built a vast network of contacts with grass-roots activists and changed the structure of their work in order to make sure that projects are implemented by individuals who have no ties with Hamas.
Several weeks ago, following the formation of the new Palestinian government, the USAID sent out a memo to all organizations working in the West Bank, permitting them once again to meet and do business with officials from the P.A. Some groups were encouraged to take on joint projects with the Palestinian government, such as the building of schools in the West Bank, which will be done in cooperation with the ministry of education.
“The U.S. government wants to see speedy and tangible results,” said Bill Corcoran, president of American Near East Refugee Aid, which works on Palestinian humanitarian needs.
While Corcoran is no longer concerned about receiving funding in the West Bank, his group and others on the ground are concerned about the American intention to slash funds for new projects in Gaza, which is now controlled by Hamas.
“That will wreak havoc,” Corcoran said, “with 80% of Gaza residents getting food support, and businesses beginning to fail, in the long term, prospects are bleak.”
American funds are currently going to Gaza through UNRWA, which does not have to adhere to the limitations regarding working ties with Hamas.
“We work with the de-facto authority on the ground to help us get the aid through,” said Andrew Whitley, director of UNRWA’s New York office.
Whitley argues that for the agency, the Hamas takeover of Gaza has not been a major problem given the relative calm that has reigned since Hamas’s takeover.
“It creates for us a more stable situation, and that is something we view positively,” he said. “Stability is crucial for supplying aid.”
As for the West Bank and the central Palestinian leadership, some American experts in the region are worried that the remedies offered by the Bush administration will provide only minimal initial support without helping rebuild the local economy.
Ambassador Philip Wilcox, former American consul general in Jerusalem, said that the new aid packages “do not create a huge opportunity” for developing the region.
According to Wilcox, who now heads Washington’s Foundation for Middle East Peace, business in the West Bank is still severely limited because of Israeli restrictions on BOTH movement and communication. He argued that only a parallel political process between Israel and the Palestinians can unleash foreign investments in the P.A., as happened after the peace agreements in the 1990s.
“Right now, all we see is a life-support operation,” he said.