By David K. Shipler
Making America Cruel Again: Part 3 of an Occasional Series
The more militant end of the Palestinian spectrum, which has grown in recent years, will surely be delighted by the Trump Administration’s latest deletion of aid. It cuts off $10 million for peacebuilding programs that have brought together Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem for professional workshops, school visits, and joint projects designed to disarm the arsenal of suspicion and fear.
These get-togethers have been denounced by Palestinian activists as efforts to “normalize” Israel’s dominance over the West Bank by “showing that everything is okay,” according to Nava Sonnenschein, an Israeli who runs such programs. The “anti-normalization movement” argues that cooperative projects acquiesce to Israeli control of the area and thereby subvert the goal of independent Palestinian statehood.
Some Palestinian participants have been threatened. Several years ago, women journalists on the West Bank were warned that if they joined a workshop for Jewish and Arab female journalists from Israel, they would be expelled from the Palestinian journalists’ union. “Some of them came nevertheless,” Sonnenschein said. “So they risked themselves because they believed it was a way to change the other side.”
Indeed, creating “change agents” is a goal of Sonnenschein’s School for Peace at Neve Shalom, a mixed Arab-Jewish village in the hills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When professionals—architects, land-use planners, engineers, environmentalists, physicians, and other influential adults from across the lines—are thrown together on the common ground of their skills and interests, she believes, they return to their own sides with a more open appreciation of the humanity and mutual concerns that can bridge the divide. Some change agents have maintained contacts with those in the other camp.
But in the latest episode of wizardry, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, want to punish Palestinians’ failure to negotiate for some nebulous notion of peace by cutting off programs that promote peaceful connections. The School for Peace and other private organizations have thrived on grants from the United States Agency for International Development, as well as from the European Union. The American funds will now support only projects that exclude Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, although Arab citizens of Israel may participate.
It’s been hard enough to get West Bank residents to the workshops, and virtually impossible for Gaza Palestinians. The stigma of “normalization” weighs on some would-be participants, and permits for Palestinians to enter Israel from the West Bank are hard to get from Israeli authorities, who virtually never issue them to Gaza residents. In addition, Israelis are prohibited by Israeli law from entering Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, or areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority. One solution has been to hold workshops in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, but that adds a costly travel expense.
Scrolling down a list of projects now at risk, called Conflict Management and Mitigation grants, makes you want to weep: empowering Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians—primarily women and girls—to work on cross-border water management in the valley from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea; assisting Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers, date farmers, and olive growers and processors to increase production and develop business relationships; promoting changes in perceptions of children with disabilities; fostering civic involvement among youth and parents to promote peace and religious tolerance in East and West Jerusalem and adjacent West Bank towns; establishing pediatric programs for cancer patients through Catholic Relief Services; training Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to be entrepreneurs; organizing basketball and soccer in joint teams of Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. And on and on. Good stuff, all in the past tense unless other funding can be found.
This is the fourth strike in as many weeks against the Palestinians. First came the Trump Administration’s decision to cut $200 million a year in humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza. Then came the halt in all funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which finances schools and provides stipends to residents of Palestinian refugee camps, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in Lebanon and Jordan. In the last decade, the US has paid $233 to $400 million a year, about one-fourth of UNRWA’s budget. Whether European and Arab countries will fill the gap remains to be seen.
Third was the elimination of $25 million in annual aid to hospitals in the largely Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, which could spell the collapse of some medical facilities.
Finally, the anti-peacebuilding decision. All add up to assaults on rank-and-file Palestinians, not leaders, and amount to the imposition of a hardball New York real estate culture on a very different Middle East dynamic. The Trumpist approach of trying to kick the Palestinians toward a deal by working hardships on ordinary folks might be effective in an established democracy where ordinary citizens could vote out leaders who made their lives miserable. Such is not the case in either the West Bank or Gaza.
What will be the effect? Maybe nothing but humiliation and anger, which already exist in abundance. But there are dire predictions, which are a dime a dozen in a region where many of them come true. Expectations are that restiveness and radicalization will increase in the West Bank; that Muslim religious schools will draw students away from the UN’s ill-funded secular schools; that terrorism against Israelis will rise; and that grassroots accommodation to peaceful coexistence, which is vital to any ultimate resolution of the conflict, will fail to grow as the programs of connection dwindle. The cut in UNRWA funding could hurt Hamas in Gaza, where it rules, but help Hamas in the West Bank by undermining the Palestinian Authority led by the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas.
In any case, the Trump-Kushner approach resembles the prescription heard from an Israeli taxi driver in 1988: “We should go to the Arabs with sticks in hand, and we should beat them on the heads; we should beat them and beat them and beat them, until they stop hating us.”