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Wielding Aid Against Democracy

By David M. Debartolo

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 reinforce it.

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 democratic practice.”

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 a bribe.

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.

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