Helping Palestinians

All-Hamas cabinet has been widely billed as technocratic. Yet its main characteristics are inescapable.

palestinians 88 (photo credit: )
palestinians 88
(photo credit: )
The all-Hamas cabinet Ismail Haniyeh presented to the Palestinian Authority has been widely billed as "technocratic." Yet its main characteristics are inescapable: It is almost entirely Hamas, rather than a coalition, and its program meets none of the conditions set by the international community regarding the rejection of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of past agreements. The list of ministers and the political program they seek to implement have not fully been released. But Salah Bardwil, a Hamas spokesman, made the situation clear: "We have no intention of endorsing the political program of other factions."
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In theory, this outcome was not a forgone conclusion. Hamas, after all, must choose between its hard-line rejectionism and embrace of terrorism and its presumed desire to deliver a better life for the Palestinian people. In its election campaign, Hamas claimed that it would actually do a better job opposite Israel at the negotiating table than had Fatah. Hamas also, tellingly, claimed to adhere to a cease-fire with Israel - again, presumably, because that is what Palestinian voters wanted to hear. Judging by its own campaign, Hamas itself believes that most Palestinians are not interested in continuing the terrorist offensive against Israel. More Palestinians voted for Mahmoud Abbas in the presidential elections in January 2005, after he explicitly called for suspending terrorist attacks against Israel, than voted for Hamas in the recent parliamentary elections. In fact, Hamas achieved its parliamentary majority by winning less than half the vote, in part because the vote for Fatah was split among multiple candidates in most regions. Nevertheless, Hamas seems to have chosen to interpret its election victory as a mandate for its platform of a war to the death with Israel, rather than the "change and reform" theme it emphasized during its campaign. Abbas is now claiming that he will refuse to approve the cabinet if the international community causes "a crisis" by cutting off assistance to the PA. The fact that Fatah refused to join the cabinet is a clear indication that Abbas hopes that a Hamas-led government will not be viable. Abbas's "threat," then, should be seen as an invitation to the international community to continue unwaveringly in its commitment not to fund a Hamas government that refuses to meet any of the conditions set by the Quartet. Hamas is hoping that it can avoid any compromise while retaining international assistance by threatening the West with the suffering of the Palestinian people. James Wolfensohn, though an envoy for the Quartet, expressed this Palestinian argument succinctly in testimony Wednesday before Congress, "I do not believe you can have a million starving Palestinians and have peace." The Palestinian economic situation is, indeed, dire. It is estimated that over half of Gazans are unemployed, while the jobless rate in the West Bank exceeds 20 percent. Yet Palestinians voted for Hamas in large numbers even though they knew there was a good chance a Hamas victory might result in an international aid cutoff. Most Palestinians clearly believed that massive foreign aid had done them no good. That's not surprising. As a recent report by the Congressional Research Service put it, "half of the $7 billion provided to the PA since its creation in the early 1990s may have been diverted by [Yasser] Arafat to political patronage and kickbacks." The same report notes that "currently, the Palestinians are the largest per capita recipients of foreign aid worldwide and, with a shattered economy, are completely dependent on external support to meet basic needs." The report states that the PA's $1.8 billion 2005 budget was composed of $400 million in taxes it collected, a similar amount of taxes collected by Israel (the transfers of which are now suspended), $320m. in direct foreign assistance, with the shortfall of over $600m. financed by commercial lenders. As much as the international community wishes to help the Palestinians, the aid that was showered upon them over the last decade not only failed to do so, but nurtured a completely dysfunctional regime deeply tainted by terrorism. The only way to change this, it seems, is to refuse to continue to finance a PA that refuses to adhere to the Quartet's conditions. The "humanitarian crisis" has already occurred; withholding assistance is the key to helping the Palestinians work their way out of it.