Aid gets political for Red Cross

In ending food aid for Palestinians, the group hopes to halt subsidy of Israel's occupation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jamal al-Absi, hollow-cheeked and grey-haired, doesn't understand the logic.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) this month cut off the bulk of his food supply, partly because it says it can no longer provide humanitarian assistance that facilitates Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

But Mr. Absi, whose job in a Tel Aviv bakery disappeared shortly after the Palestinians uprising or intifada began more than three years ago, wonders just what he is supposed to do about the occupation, especially if he cannot feed himself and his family. "With your hand can you stop a knife?" he asks.

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For outsiders concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, helping the Palestinians has always brought with it a dilemma: Doesn't the aid absolve Israel of some of the costs of keeping millions of Palestinians under occupation?

Earlier this year, the ICRC, the Swiss-based charity mainly known for its efforts to promote respect for the laws of war, deci- ded it could no longer maintain a food- distribution program in the West Bank, which it initiated in mid-2002. "This program was not designed to substitute for the responsibility of the occupying power, which is Israel," says Vincent Bernard, ICRC spokesman in Jerusalem.

Israel has long denied that its presence in the Palestinian territories - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - constitutes occupation, arguing that no country was a sovereign power in those lands before 1967, when Israel seized them during a war with Arab countries. But in recent months Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has acknowledged that Israel keeps the people in the territories under occupation.

The ICRC's step has caused aid workers and donor countries to reconsider their role. "A number of people within the assistance community, both the UN and donors, are looking at the costs of subsidizing the occupation," says David Shearer, a UN official who runs the Jerusalem branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "The ICRC decision raised the volume" of the discussion, he adds.

The ICRC began distributing food and food vouchers in the West Bank after a massive Israeli military operation in April 2002 that followed a series of Palestinian attacks against Israelis. During the past 18 months the organization has spent $46 million on the program, which it says has helped some 300,000 Palestinians.

But Mr. Bernard, the ICRC spokesman, says that his organization cannot continue what was conceived of as an emergency program indefinitely, and especially not when Israel could do more to alleviate Palestinian economic strife. "The Israelis have the responsibility to minimize the economic impact of their security measures," he says.

Absi, the unemployed bakery worker, says the aid "has been very essential to our life." He and his wife and four children live in two small rooms in a rundown family compound in central Hebron.

Last week he used his last ICRC food voucher to buy sugar, noodles, and other staples. A bag of rice from an Islamic charity sits on the floor near the room's wood burning stove.

He says he will have to turn, once again, to members of his and his wife's family for support when the food runs out. "We have been through a lot of suffering; it's enough," he says.

If Absi could travel out of the West Bank, he might be able to resume his work at a bakery in Tel Aviv.

The problem is that Israel - to prevent attacks against its citizens - sharply curtails the movement of Palestinians, both within the West Bank and Gaza Strip and from those territories into Israel.

A World Bank report issued earlier this year said that the Palestinian economy had shrunk by a third during the first two years of the current conflict, which began in the fall of 2000, and that some 60 percent of the Palestinian population now lives in poverty.

"The proximate cause of the Palestinian economic collapse is closure," the Bank wrote, defining the term as "restrictions imposed by [Israel] on the movement of Palestinian goods and people."

Israeli and Palestinian officials alike criticize the ICRC's move, saying it will increase extremism and thus may exacerbate the conflict. "If [aid agencies and international organizations] will resign from providing humanitarian support to the Palestinians," says Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, "it will not advance the chances of peace. Maybe it will make Palestinians more bitter and some of them more vicious and some of them more extreme and that will not enhance the chances of a meaningful peace dialogue between us and them."

"I know the Israeli government wants an occupation and they don't want to pay for it," says Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister.

But he adds that any broad refusal to aid the Palestinians will "destroy the peace process."

"So please," he adds, addressing himself to the ICRC and other organizations, "continue your help to the Palestinian people."

While aid workers may be discussing the appropriateness of providing aid, there is no sign that other organizations are contemplating a pullout or closing down programs.

The UN is appealing to donors for $305 million in funding to provide humanitarian aid in 2004; the total amount of annual international assistance to the Palestinians is about $1 billion.

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