As the hard-line Hamas government holds its first cabinet meetings, it
is legally necessary and morally proper to reassess American aid
flowing into the West Bank and Gaza. And while it is only natural to
consider Hamas’s reprehensible founding charter and past suicide
bombings of Israeli civilians in making decisions about aid, it is
equally important to make these decisions in light of the fact that
Hamas won power democratically in a relatively free and fair election.
As a preliminary matter, direct financial assistance to the
Palestinian Authority government is already barred by law, absent a
rarely-used presidential waiver that such assistance is in America’s
national security interests. Such a waiver will certainly not be
granted as long as Hamas controls the Palestinian Legislative Council.
On the other hand, American officials stress that
humanitarian assistance—food, water and medical care—will not be cut
off. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has even said that the U.S.
hopes to increase its humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
But a plethora of reform, development and exchange programs
conducted by contractors and nonprofit organizations, many funded by
the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), fall in between.
USAID’s West Bank/Gaza budget of $225 million, which includes providing
equipment for Palestinian schools, micro-finance loans for
entrepreneurs, and rule-of-law forums for Palestinian judges, is being
reassessed by the Bush administration with the intent of cutting off
any aid that could benefit the Palestinian government.
Dozens of initiatives that involve incidental contact with
government agencies, whether controlled by Hamas ministers or not, are
threatened by the nearly-completed funding review. The reassessment is
being carried out in the shadow of even more drastic legislation
pending in Congress; the White House apparently feels compelled to fall
into line before lawmakers take the decision out of its hands. Funding
for one infrastructure project has already been halted on the grounds
that any contact with the Hamas government is prohibited.
Pragmatically, this move could backfire, bolstering Hamas’s
support instead of weakening it. After all, Hamas explicitly campaigned
on the fact that America opposed it; a popular campaign banner in the
West Bank said “Israel and the U.S. say no to Hamas. What do you say?”
External attempts to sabotage a Hamas government would give it an easy
target to blame if it does indeed fail to improve Palestinians’ lives.
In addition, curtailing or canceling these programs would
weaken Hamas’s adversaries, not Hamas. Organizations receiving USAID
funding are the closest thing to allies that America has in the West
Bank and Gaza; they already sign a pledge that they will not support
terror organizations or terrorists. America should redouble its efforts
to strengthen these groups, not abandon them.
Some nevertheless argue that America must cut off all aid to
any organization that interacts with the Palestinian government
(however indirectly) in order to convey the depth of America’s
disapproval of Hamas. But the U.S. has made its disgust with Hamas
abundantly clear in a variety of other ways, including refusing to
engage it diplomatically. Maintaining aid to moderate, reformist
Palestinian NGOs will hardly undercut that message; it will in fact
Most fundamentally, after vocally supporting democratization
in the Middle East (and Palestinian elections in particular), the U.S.
has an obligation not to retaliate immediately against the Palestinian
people for their democratic choice. Cutting aid to NGOs and
entrepreneurs in the West Bank and Gaza before the Hamas government
takes any meaningful action would be a thinly-veiled attempt to
retaliate against Palestinians for choosing Hamas over Fatah. Maher
Awartani, a Palestinian-American youth participation specialist at a
USAID-funded project in Ramallah, rightly notes that cutting such
funding in response to the recent elections would demonstrate to
Palestinians that the U.S. is “punishing us for...pure indigenous
Whatever the appropriate relationship between politics and
aid, the U.S. should not use its aid to subvert democracy. A troubling
precedent was set just before the legislative council election, when
USAID expedited several programs (and suppressed its own publicity
requirements) in order to allow Fatah to take credit for last-minute
municipal improvements. To channel money to one side in a democratic
election, and then to cut off funding when the other side wins—whether
motivated by genuine disgust, or by the desire to precipitate the Hamas
government’s collapse and reverse the election’s outcome—sends a bad
message about America’s commitment to the democratic process.
USAID signs in the West Bank and Gaza portray American aid as
a “gift from the American people to the Palestinian people.” If that
aid is conditional on the way Palestinians vote, it is less a gift than
America’s fundamental credibility on democracy is at stake in
our response to Hamas. Respecting unwelcome yet democratic outcomes is
part and parcel of supporting democracy. If reform, development and
exchange programs are curtailed or cut off because of Hamas’s victory,
it will not only weaken Palestinian moderates relative to Hamas—it will
further endanger America’s credibility as a supporter of democracy in
the Middle East and around the world.
David M. DeBartolo is chair of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2002.