Al-Sijill 2009-02-12 21:48:57The chaos in Gaza can be traced back to a failed US initiative to ease Israeli pressure on the Palestinian economy. The 2005 Access and Mobility Agreement was subverted, first by Israeli foot-dragging in negotiations with the US government over the terms of a high-tech scanner network, and later, after Hamas's January 2006 victory in parliamentary elections, by Israel's hawkish friends in Washington. However sincere President Barack Obama may be in his quest for Middle East peace, the sad story of the AMA reveals how entrenched in the American political process are interest groups hostile to the prospect of an independent Palestine and a viable economy on which to build it.
Washington responded to Hamas’s election triumph with a financial embargo on the Palestinian Authority. The Access and Mobility Agreement was all but frozen, particularly as it related to the Karni crossing, Gaza’s main artery for trade. On average, only some 20 trucks crossed into and out of Gaza in 2006, about 5 percent of the volume targeted by the mobility accords. A year after the US sanctions took root, the World Bank had declared Karni’s operations as “unacceptable.” The Gazan economy continued to deteriorate and by mid-2007 the United Nations was warning of a humanitarian crisis.
Though few observers on the US side were expecting Hamas’s landslide win, the American Israel Political Affairs Committee was taking no chances. Well before the vote, the Washington-based lobbying group was circulating memos to lawmakers encouraging them to reject any Palestinian government in which Hamas had a role. (AIPAC keeps a meticulous record of how American lawmakers vote on Israel-related legislation. It regularly asks a friendly Senator or House member to demand a roll-call vote so it can “score” members for their voter loyalty, then publishes the results in AIPAC Insider, the group’s quarterly periodical.) On its website, AIPAC took credit for mid-wiving House Resolution 575, signed on November 18, 2005, which declares that “Hamas and other terrorist organizations should not participate in elections held by the Palestinian Authority.”
Within days of Hamas’s victory, and with AIPAC assiduously working the process, two draft resolutions were introduced from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate. Language from the bills was synthesized into a small provision and inserted into an emergency funding bill for the Iraq war, which was signed into law on June 15, 2006. The provision forbids “appropriations for foreign operations, export financing, and related programs … for assistance to the Palestinian Authority.” Unusually, the legislation denied the president a waiver authority.
With the stroke of a pen in Washington, all US-funded projects in Palestine were cut off. They included programs to make the Palestinian judiciary more transparent, to train and educate its police force, and to professionalize the Palestinian election commission. In a June 23 memo, USAID instructed its contractors in the West Bank and Gaza to “ensure no funds are expended which could be considered as assistance to the Palestinian Authority.” European donors largely followed suit.
For Keith Dayton, the legislation was a surprise attack on his efforts to upgrade the Karni crossing. Only a month or so before the Palestinian elections, the US Army lieutenant general and former Pentagon policy planner had been appointed by the State Department as its security coordinator on the project. Suddenly, he and his team of experts were prohibited from dealing directly with any member of the Palestinian government other than President Mahmoud Abbas. To compensate, a detail of Canadian military officers and engineers were brought in to act as proxies for the Americans.
Lacking the US funds he requested to strengthen security and to bolster economic activity on the Palestinian side of the crossing, Dayton was reduced to cobbling together non-US aid on a piecemeal basis. He and his team persuaded a Dutch NGO to help finance a flower farm, for example, and dollops of aid were cajoled from Turkey and Sweden. They managed to raise C$1.2 million from the Canadian government to buy security cameras, and a British aid agency agreed to train border guards and build a new mess hall.
For four weeks in January, Gaza erupted into an urban killing ground as gunmen from Fatah and Hamas, following months of tensions, engaged in running street battles. To avert a civil war, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited leaders from the two sides to Mecca, where they hammered out a truce that became the foundation for a Hamas-led unity government. To shore up Abbas, and to preempt a wider conflict, the Bush administration in January 2007 announced it would provide the president’s office with some $86 million in aid, $16 million of which was to be invested in Karni. But when the aid package was submitted to Capitol Hill for approval, Congress blocked it. Nita Lowey, a legislator who chairs the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said she placed a hold on the package out of fear that some of the money could find its way into the coffers of Hamas.
The freeze perplexed many observers in Washington. After all, they argued, the aid was to be distributed not in cash but in kind, as items and services like computers and training procured by the Dayton team. Capitol Hill sources say Lowey made her decision after meeting with Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s then- ambassador to Washington, “who makes no distinction between Hamas and Fatah,” according to a legislative aid who requested anonymity.
In mid-March, a few weeks after Lowey’s decision, Ephraim Sneh, who was managing Israel’s side of the AMA, traveled to Washington for the annual leadership conference of AIPAC. There, he admonished the group’s members for not supporting the Karni redevelopment as a cornerstone of the mobility agreement. He called on the offices of Lowey and the late Tom Lantos, the California representative who was a co-sponsor of the anti-Hamas bills, and emphasized the importance of Karni. He and an aid from the defense ministry also met with members and staff of the foreign relations and foreign appropriations committees. At every stop, Sneh delivered the same message: what’s good for the Gazan economy is good for the state of Israel.
Eventually, some funds were released for Dayton’s operations. But by then it was too late. In June, Hamas overran US-backed Fatah forces in a brief but bloody civil war. Soon after that, radical groups unleashed their rocket attacks on southern Israel.