Diplomatic Affairs: The anti-terrorism price tag

Clean water and Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts become collateral damage of new Trump administration legislation.

STUDENTS AT the USAID-funded Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located on Kibbutz Ketura, use the desert as their classroom (photo credit: MARCOS SCHONHOLZ)
STUDENTS AT the USAID-funded Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located on Kibbutz Ketura, use the desert as their classroom
(photo credit: MARCOS SCHONHOLZ)
With one email, EcoPeace Middle East lost a $1.2 million grant that had been pledged to aid it in its fight for clean water for Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.
“It came as a complete surprise,” the group’s Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg, told The Jerusalem Post, as he described the moment he saw the email from the United States Agency for International Development.
It was a letter similar to the ones USAID sent to at least 14 Israeli-Palestinian conflict-resolution NGOs, invalidating their multi-year contracts in which hefty grants — $8.3 million for this year alone —had been pledged.
The groups were already struggling to cope with the Trump administration’s decision last year to shut down all financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and to Palestinian-related programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Co-existence groups like Bromberg’s believed they had one to two years before they were impacted by the cuts and during which they could chart a course in the new post-US-funding universe, because USAID had already allocated funding to them through 2020.
It was also presumed that funding for the Palestinian security services would continue.
But two seemingly unrelated events in Washington made the continuation of funding for the NGOs and the PA security service impossible: the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act and the US government shutdown.
A strict reading of ATCA, which went into effect on January 31, left the PA with the understanding that accepting any US financial assistance – including US government grants to Palestinian students – would place it under the jurisdiction of the US courts. This means that the PA could be liable for court judgments against it worth upwards of half-a-billion dollars for its past involvement in terrorist-related activity.
The PA in December sent the US a letter stating that it no longer intended to accept US government funds, including for individual Palestinians, after the passing of ATCA.
Movements on Capitol Hill aimed at amending the legislation in order to allow for the continuation of already allocated grants and funding for PA security services hit a brick wall when US President Donald Trump shut down the government over a funding fight in Congress.
US politicians on Capitol Hill are now working to alter the legislation with an eye toward rescuing some, if not all, of the lost money. They want to tack language onto one of the continuing appropriation bills due for a vote later this month that will exempt the already allocated USAID funding, as well as money for the Palestinian security services, from ATCA.
Among those pushing for those efforts is Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella organization for coexistence groups – otherwise known as “people-to-people” groups – that advocates on their behalf in Washington.
“It is in no one’s interest whatsoever to cut off funding to the very groups that are dealing with the hate and incitement that this conflict generates,” Braunold said. “By crippling those who are building peace from the ground up, we only deepen the challenge that we are all facing. I would hope that Congress takes urgent steps to remedy the misreading of the Anti-Terrorism [Clarification] Act. It was not the intent of the authors to completely remove any funding from groups that have nothing to do with the Palestinian Authority.”
He is also working to advance legislation called the Palestinian Partnership Fund Act, introduced already last year by Democratic Senator Christopher Coones of Delaware, that would provide the Palestinians with economic assistance through the corporate world.
BROMBERG HAS held on to the small sliver of hope that these efforts, particularly a February amendment to ATCA, will bear fruit.
His group, like many of the others, were also recipients of other funding from the European Union, European states and philanthropists. But the loss of the USAID money will force the NGOs to cut back.
At stake for Bromberg’s organization without a February amendment is 26 jobs and the flagship Good Water Neighbors program, which works with Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians on issues of clean water and sanitation, including work to rehabilitate the polluted Jordan River.
“The madness in the whole thing is the unintended consequences; the administration never intended to cut people-to-people programing,” Bromberg said, adding that initially the Trump administration had heavily invested, including through USAID, in resolving water and sanitation issues in the West Bank and Gaza.
EcoPeace had played an important role in convincing the Trump administration to focus on these issue, Bromberg said.
“Then, out of the blue, everything was cut. It makes no sense. It is very disappointing and incredibly frustrating for organizations that have committed themselves to such important causes,” he said.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located at Kibbutz Ketura, which also works on joint environmental projects with Israeli, Jordanians and Palestinians, took a hit as well.
“We didn’t expect that grants we were in the middle of implementing would be canceled,” executive director David Lehrer said, adding that his institute’s work is important to regional stability. “All the Gaza and West Bank projects were gutted,” he said. This includes a program to help Israeli and Palestinian date farmers and eco-tourism projects.
Arava’s program on waste water with Jordanians is continuing, but the Palestinians can’t participate.
Our mission is to advance cross-border relations in the face of political conflict. We do this because the environment can’t wait for a peace treaty and because its the way to bring people together,” Lehrer said. “This is a great example of shooting yourself in the foot: cutting off funding to Israeli and Palestinian organizations that are trying to work to build better relations between our two people is the height of stupidity.”
Efrat Tal, director of development for the NGO Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), which lost a $1.16m. grant, said that when she saw the USAID email, “it felt like a blow to the stomach.”
Unlike Bromberg, she had been informed by USAID that such a move was possible, but it was “one of those things that you keep saying to yourself, ‘it might happen,’ but in the back of your head, you think, ‘no, it is not going to happen.’”
The organization has already cut its 2019 budget by a third and has embarked on an urgent fund-raising appeal, she said.
The joint Israeli-Palestinian organization brings together 600 families who have lost immediate family members in violence related to the conflict, including in terrorist attacks.
Rami Elhanan, the Israeli director of the PCFF, who lost his daughter Smadar in a 1997 terrorist attack on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Street, said that this is one group that “can’t afford to give up hope” just because of a change in US policy.
“We paid the highest price possible and it’s a pity that people who seek dialogue and reconciliation are being subject to political forces that have nothing to do with the people who are living on the ground,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
When he first joined the group 20 years ago, Elhanan “was overwhelmed by the sight of Israelis and Palestinians together. I was 47 years old and it was the first time I had met with Palestinians.”
At a time of intense grief for Elhanan, the group “changed my life and gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”