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The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Its situation is not enviable. The cash box is empty, according to its own financial officials. The bloated rolls of Palestine Authority functionaries have not been paid in more than a month, even while armed gangs attack headquarters and demand being hired as security personnel as the price of peace. American, Canadian, and European governments have turned off the taps that had supplied much of the Authority's money. Israel is not transferring the taxes collected for goods to be shipped to Palestine that arrive at Israeli ports. There is not much being shipped to Palestine in any case, insofar as the border crossings have been closed more often than open. Foreign money is promised to non-governmental social service organizations not controlled by Hamas. Sooner or later, Hamas will control those organizations, but that will not provide the regime with enough money to pay its employees and spend something on social services.
A number of Arab governments have made generous offers of financial help, but as usual, the actual deliveries are much smaller than the promises. Israeli retaliations for the attacks by homemade rockets are now targeting things other than empty fields. Buildings have been destroyed, and some Gazans have been hurt and left their homes. Israeli attacks are in response to a rate of about 50 rockets fired in the direction of Israel so far this week. A number of them have actually made it out of Gaza, and a couple have caused damage within Israel. Sooner or later, when a rocket actually kills an Israeli, the retaliation is likely to escalate further.
So far, the whispers of uncle from Hamas are hard to decipher. They are highly qualified. One whisper has indicated that Israel has to make clear what it is willing to give the Palestinians, and then the Palestinian government will debate the issue; another says that the Hamas government will consider a cease fire; another says that direct negotiations with Israel are not possible, but Hamas will talk with third parties about what it is willing to do; hints of recognizing the reality of Israel's existence have brought quick denials by Hamas officials that any of its people had said what the media are quoting.
The details are not important. The whispers are too faint and vague. Hamas is a long way from a serious confrontation with Israel's existence. It may be stuck permanently in the fundamentalism which pervades contemporary Islam.
In all of this, the non-Hamas president of the Palestine National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has become something of a media darling. He is portrayed as the good guy, the non-terrorist in contrast to the evil Hamas. There is a piece of legislation in the US House of Representatives that offers money to him for electoral expenses, while the same bill would deny any American government money to the government headed by a Hamas prime minister.
Abbas' reputation is hard to figure. He long ago lost whatever potency he may have had. The corruption of the government he headed was a major cause of the Hamas success in the recent election. Does the US House of Representatives want to support his reelection? It would be more efficient to send US funds directly to Swiss bank accounts. Abbas' utter failure to use the security forces he controlled to stop the rockets qualified him for a role in comic opera rather than serious politics.
It is unfortunate for Israel and the Palestinians that Palestinians continue to enjoy a special place in the world's concern. North American and European governments, as well as the United Nations, highlight the need to provide them with humanitarian aid, and repeat the mantra of having to create a viable Palestinian state. Israel has to explain the barrier it has built against violence, which much of the world sees only as causing suffering for Palestinians. Arguably, the Blacks of southern Sudan, as well as large numbers of Somalis and Congolese are in a worse condition than the Palestinians. There are hopes associated with the recent election of a technocrat as president of Liberia and the arrest of Charles Taylor, but much of West Africa is still a long way below the quality of life in the West Bank and even Gaza.
We should not envy the status of the Palestinians as the darlings of world concern. If any people have suffered from excessive care, it is them. More than 50 years of being aided as refugees have produced a caricature of dependence. Someone else has to solve their problems. Israel has to respond to their needs before they will stop the violence. The great powers of the world must pressure Israel to do the right thing. The new Hamas government is doing little beyond refreshing the slogans we have been hearing for decades.
Concepts of social service have changed in much of the world. It is less popular to continue caring for the needy via welfare than designing programs that will encourage them to help themselves. It is not an easy thing to do. It is likely to hurt in the short run, and welfare agencies are skilled in opposing reform and their own downsizing.
It is time to apply concepts similar to welfare reform to the Palestinians. As in the field of welfare, the social service agencies are among the strongest opponents of change. They live on the aid funds that they collect and distribute, and which provide their employees with salaries and pensions. Currently, the principal UN agency that aids the Palestinians (UNRWA: United Nations Relief and Works Agency) is calling for increased funding. Yet there can be no progress until the Palestinians recognize the reality of Israel's existence, and figure out how best to help themselves live alongside Israel rather than dream of replacing Israel. Sadly, the election of Hamas, and the early days of its government, indicate that a realistic concern for independence, rather than dependence, is not a part of the Palestinian world view.
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