Aid and Development

Rant on Humanitarianism

This piece was first published on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace.

It is 3am and my left index finger taps involuntarily on the laminate desk because I’ve been told by someone I respect that I am wrong or just crazy (but oh so politely) to find it very strange that the distinction between what is “humanitarian” and what is “developmental” in terms of aid is so arbitrary and from my point of view illogical because (stay with me here) there is a “Humanitarian Imperative” that obliges international actors to provide tents for Palestinians in Gaza and food so they don’t starve, at least not quickly, but there is no “imperative” for those same actors to demand – I’m talking about actions not words – that Israel allow building supplies and equipment in through the checkpoint which they control or that they allow yummy, beautiful, quality Gaza products into the world market so that Palestinians in Gaza can support themselves rather than be 80% dependent on aid (that was a pre-war figure) and please don’t start now about Egypt because OF COURSE Egypt has control over the crossing at Rafah and is complicit in obstructing trade and aid—though never say the word “denying” trade and aid, I don’t know why, maybe because then it’s a crime against humanity? (I am not sure if that is true) and anyway, what does that have to do with the sense of betrayal and isolation and hopelessness that is driving thousands of Palestinians to seek to escape illegally by sea and drowning! drowning! Those young people who stayed alive through the hell of bombardment, the shaking of the ground, the thundering of the skies, the collapse of the world around them for the third time in the last six years and now they so urgently want to escape that they push themselves onto rickety boats (flashing images of Haitians flailing in rough waters), my God, the world is going to hell, and yes I started that last verse with an indictment of Egypt, against whom I feel even more powerless than I do against Israel, which is pretty darn powerless, but this is, obviously, a digression from my main point which had to do with how totally bizarre and sick it seems to me that the “Humanitarian Imperative” is not a HUMAN imperative (forget law now, law makes my head hurt and all those people who say that my arguments are weak because they aren’t grounded in law make my head hurt too because my arguments are grounded in JUSTICE PEOPLE, yes JUSTICE which is an imperative, no?) I mean, isn’t it imperative for us as human beings to prevent the injustices that lead to the humanitarian crises that then invoke the Humanitarian Imperative to respond in very limited ways? (stop telling me that humanitarianism cannot and should not be political and that the whole point and value of humanitarianism is that it is not subject to politics when that only makes sense to me between 9am and 5pm and not at 3am when I can see so clearly that nothing is more political than saying “our job ends when people eat” and I know you’re yelling-35825_640frustrated that I’m “twisting” what you mean, that we are not limited to humanitarianism but that it protects a minimal space for required intervention on non-political grounds OKAY OKAY I get that but it is sooooooooooooooooooooo not enough in today’s world where we are the perpetrators of the humanitarian crises to say that we are only obligated to respond to the symptoms—and if I am the only one who sees that then I am truly insane) And anyway, isn’t action imperative for us too – to protect the sanctity of our own humanity, if not the law – and what I mean by that is that every time we use this sterile terminology to justify not doing something that we know to be right in our [she pounds very hard on the squishy place above the belly button that processes everything] then we are less, less, less AND the people, in this case Palestinians, that we let down, because they are now absolutely sure that they can’t rely on anybody in the world to hear and realize and act on the fact that they are suffering terribly (I already said that I know that they are not the only ones in the world!), not due to a tsunami or an earthquake but from the unnecessary and immoral acts of an OECD and UN member state that enjoys all kinds of upgraded trade relations and cultural exchanges and stuff that Gaza is denied, denied, denied, denied, but it is ME I remind you who is naïve and confused when I say that this has got to stop people, the WHOLE mess of inequality and violence—economic, cultural, sexual, physical because it’s so very tiring (if you can’t tell) trying to understand the world we live in today and what my role in it is as someone who is compelled by a Human Imperative and who is angry and disappointed that we’ve found so many legal, professional and administrative ways to not get involved when we’re needed like telling 1.8 million traumatized human beings (who, by the way, would share a piece of bread with you if it was the only thing they had) that “we’re only obligated to provide you with tents and not to use all means necessary to ensure that you live with dignity in homes that are safe and that when you go to the beach you can swim in water that is not polluted by raw sewage and that you feel no compulsion to drown yourself because you feel alone. I want to say to the Palestinians in Gaza, to the Bangladeshi sweat shop workers, to the kids who go to school barefoot in El Salvador, to homeless women on skid row in Los Angeles: you are not alone (and I really wish that someone would tell me that I am not alone at 3am) but then again, I might just be wrong or crazy (but not in the legal sense!).

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Gaza under fire: What does it mean for philanthropy?

This article appeared on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace where I will be contributing monthly.

I’m a critic of “poverty porn,” the selling of poverty to increase donations. It dehumanizes “beneficiaries” (a word that itself is dehumanizing), but even worse, it’s a slippery slope. Engaging donors on the basis of crisis means you always need a new crisis to keep them engaged; successful philanthropy becomes dependent on having a steady stream of victims.

That’s why I tried a different approach when I designed my Gaza birthday campaign. I was turning 50 and wanted to do something that would matter for Gaza. I decided to ask my friends and family to do three things: 1) make a financial gift to the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association, a community-controlled fund at Palestine’s community foundation; 2) write a letter to a political representative or media outlet calling for an end to the siege; and 3) sign up for an organization’s newsletter, to get ongoing news about the struggle for Palestinian rights.

My thought was that asking for three things would demonstrate that meaningful philanthropy isn’t about giving away money and feeling better, it’s about engaging in meaningful ways. To make it real, I gave my friends and followers a gift too (in the spirit of “pay-it-forward”): I released a short video clip with a Palestinian from Gaza every day for the 31 days proceeding my birthday.

I intentionally started the campaign when Gaza was not in the news, and I used that in my appeal. I suggested that we should seek to empower Palestinians to be better able to withstand or even prevent the next escalation, rather than giving money only when Gaza is in the news.

Well, I only raised a little over $1,500, not the $5,000 I was hoping for, and the vibrant exchange of ideas about campaigns and organizations and strategies for lifting the siege – that didn’t happen at all. Some of my failure is likely attributable to the limitations of my network and my social media skills, but not all. I fear that people really don’t want to give to an issue that’s not “hot,” even if it’s likely to explode soon.

Another piece of evidence to consider is the announcement, reported in Newsweek, that the Algerian soccer team plans to donate their World Cup winnings – a reported $9 million – to Gaza. The announcement came after the most recent round of Israeli bombings of Gaza, named Operation Protective Edge, hit the news.

We will have to wait and see before we conclude. Will the Algerian soccer team actually pay, or will their $9 million go the way of so much aid that pledged but not delivered? If they do fulfill their commitment, will they give their contribution to an expensive and impotent international intermediary as many aid recipients complain? Or, will they really make history by recognizing that while Palestinians need money, they need political support even more, and that money they do get should be allocated by Palestinians according to Palestinian priorities and monitored locally by those intended to benefit.

Whether or not the Algerian soccer team does the correct and courageous thing, I intend to try my experiment again. I’m not ready to give up on Gazans’ right to self-determination in development, including their right to control their own development resources. And I’m also not ready to give up on the common donor. There must be people out there who understand that it’s more effective to give before a crisis, and that philanthropists who want to make a difference must make a commitment to stay engaged over the long-term – regardless of what’s making headlines. Meanwhile, I hope that those who give now, hearts broken by the senseless suffering, take the time to give well.

 

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B- for my Gaza birthday campaign but an A for effort

Thanks to my newsletter subscribers and website followers who hung in with me as I bombarded you all with video reminders about life in Gaza each day leading up to my 50th birthday. I hope you made time to watch some of them, and I hope you came away with a new interest in Gaza. I hope the videos reinforced your impression that Gazans matter – not only during attacks, but also in between the attacks that bring Gaza to the front pages of the news every year or two.

I want to give a special thanks to my new friends from Gaza who agreed to be interviewed and to share fascinating and little known aspects of their lives with me, and by extension, with the world: Najla Shawa, Hekmat Bessiso, Amal Sabawi, Nahedd Kayyali, Ghada Ageel, Thoraya El-Rayyes, and Sameeha Elwan.

My Gaza birthday campaign was a success in some ways. The videos brought some new visibility, and a different kind of visibility, to the issues, and they reached some new people. They’ll remain on my YouTube channel forever, and may continue to be seen. Still, I must admit that my birthday campaign fell short of my hopes in many ways.

I wish there had been more sharing of political actions taken to the end the siege. But even as I say that, I admit that I don’t really know what actions might be effective. The siege on Gaza is part and parcel of the Israeli occupation, which is pat and parcel of the Israeli colonization project. That’s not an easy mountain to move.

I also wish we had raised more money. Thanks to the generous contributions of Marga Kapka, Dorothy Bennoune, Pat Walsh, Anonymous, Carolyn Quffa, Mary Onorato, Vicki Tamoush, Pauline Solomon (and some from me), we raised over $1,500. But I’d hoped for at least $5,000. What is $5,000 going to do, you may ask, when the needs in Gaza are so huge? Shouldn’t we raise massive amounts of money to feed and house people? Actually, I’m a critic of “humanitarian aid,” especially for long terms, and especially in human-made crises like that in the Gaza Strip. In those cases, political action that enables Palestinians to claim their rights is more effective. And that’s what the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association will do – enable the pilot of a new community controlled grant process that respects Palestinians rights to lead their own development agenda. The fact that Dalia Association is willing to undertake this logistically challenging and emotionally intensive work is itself an act of resistance against the siege that seeks to split the West Bank from Gaza, as if one could sever a heart from its arteries without doing mortal damage.

There was one unexpected but fabulous outcome! A small group of university students in Gaza found me through my campaign. They are teaching themselves to do advocacy and public relations. They asked me to lead a weekly training by skype, and I’m having a grand time doing it. I don’t know whose learning more, them or me

And fortunately, the effort isn’t over. Dalia Association published an interview with me about the Gaza Fund and they will continue to receive contributions (of money or any other resource) indefinitely. The Gaza Fund has become a standing program, part of Dalia’s creative initiative to promote rights and self-reliance through philanthropy and civil society strengthening.

On a more personal note, I admit, the birthday campaign didn’t make me feel any younger or any better about turning 50 in a world that is so violent, wasteful and immature. I don’t feel any clearer about what I want to do with the next phase of my life either. Will I go back to working on my neglected novel? Hammer away at the strange and disempowering world of freelance journalism? Having transitioned to a less involved role at Dalia Association, do I want to start something new? I have no answers to these questions. Your opinions/suggestions/feedback/encouragement (in the form of words or chocolate) are always welcome.

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Israel’s Creative Dispossession Tactics (Aljazeera)

This article first appeared in Aljazeera.

Even Palestinians can’t help but be impressed by Israeli ingenuity in circumventing the law in their colonial quest.

At first, the visit by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) to Jabal Al-Baba on April 9 seemed routine. A Bedouin community in the E1 area, Jabal Al-Baba has had 18 demolition orders pending since February. Residents were not surprised, then, when officials delivered stop-work orders on three more insulated residential structures. Under Israeli law, these structures can be demolished – but only after a 21-day delay, during which residents have the right to appeal to the Israeli courts.

But the Israeli authorities didn’t wait for the legal process to run its course; they returned to Jabal Al-Baba and retrieved the stop-work orders they had distributed just hours before. “We were happy,” said Suleiman Kayyed Jahalin, a member of the community. “We thought the Israelis had changed their minds and weren’t going to demolish our homes after all. We were wrong.”

A representative of an international NGO that delivers aid to the community described how the Israeli Civil Administration returned several hours later with soldiers and dismantled the three homes. Once dismantled, the ICA didn’t have to wait for their demolition orders to survive a legal challenge; they simply confiscated the parts of the houses under an Israeli law that entitles them to confiscate building materials, equipment or cars without any advance notice.

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Although Israel dismantled and confiscated the homes rather than demolishing them, the result is the same: human beings that lived in shelters are now homeless. A total of 111 additional members of the Ras Al-Baba community live under impending threat of having their homes demolished. In fact the United Nations reports that most of the 2,800 Bedouins residing in the E1 area have demolition orders against their homes (plus two schools). These Palestinian communities are considered among those most at risk of forced displacement.

The three residential structures were constructed in February with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) and the French Consulate and were valued at approximately 2000 Euros. Representatives from the donor agencies and other diplomatic staff toured the site on April 11, but the Office of the EU Representative was only willing to say, “The EU has well-known concerns about demolitions, which it has expressed on many occasions in line with our overall Area C policy. The EU will raise this issue with the relevant Israeli authorities.”

Palestinian human rights advocates are disappointed that European donors have failed to act boldly to hold Israel accountable. It seems that many humanitarian actors have bought into the notion that demolition of donor-funded projects is “sensitive” and should not be addressed head-on.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has tracked Israeli demolition of donor-funded projects since 2011. They report that 317 donor-funded projects were demolished between January 1, 2011 and the end of 2013.

In another recent incident, a truck with donations from the Italian government arrived at the school in the Bedouin community of Khan Al-Ahmar on February 27. According to the principal, “A drone sailed around taking photographs and twenty minutes later, the Israeli Civil Administration showed up with three carloads of police and confiscated all our new playground equipment and construction materials.” They even took the truck in which the aid was being delivered.

Some human rights advocates describe the confiscation of playground equipment as ‘silly’ while others call it ‘evil,’ but one thing is certain: such confiscations are illegal. Diakonia, a Swedish faith-based development organization that promotes respect for international humanitarian law, refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention when it concludes that international humanitarian law “…specifically protects against the requisition of property of relief organisations and prohibits the diversion of relief consignments from the ‘purpose for which they are intended, except in cases of urgent necessity….”

The Italian Consulate did not respond to a request for a statement.

The stakes are financial, legal and moral. The confiscation and demolition of humanitarian aid may result in forcible transfer, which may be considered a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

International and Israeli NGOs have documented Israeli tactics, which include denial of building permits to structures where no master plan exists, refusal to respond to community-supported master plans submitted for approval, stop-work orders for construction lacking building permits, seizure or confiscation of equipment or materials, and demolition of structures. Palestinians are often charged a fee for the demolition of their home or offered the option to self-demolish in order to reduce their fines. Seizure, confiscation and demolition lead to displacement of Palestinians, especially in Area C, and facilitate Israel’s illegal settlement activities.

Thousands of Palestinians are affected by Israeli confiscations and the demolition of property, resulting in growing humanitarian concern. However, with rare exceptions, most international donors are subdued in their criticism of Israeli demolitions in general and do not speak out publicly about the demolition of taxpayer-funded projects. To be fair, they are stuck between conflicting interests. On the one hand, international donors are legally- mandated by international humanitarian law to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Area C, whether or not Israel approves. To ensure the sustainability of their humanitarian projects, they would have to obtain permits from Israel. However, the Israeli planning and permit regime in Area C is illegal and it may also be illegal for donors to grant it validity by seeking Israeli permits. Moreover, donors who build without Israeli permits and see their funded projects demolished may expose themselves to criticism for spending taxpayers’ money irresponsibly.

Increasingly, local and international aid critics are saying that by failing to hold Israel accountable, donors alleviate pressure on Israel to agree to a sustainable and just peace and are therefore complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. They also note the spike in demolitions of Palestinian property that coincided with the renewal of US-backed peace talks. Diplomats and officials are also starting to speak out, too, but so far, only off the record.

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Here’s the deal…

When something bad happens in the world, like an Israeli bombing of Gaza, we  run to the news every morning to find out what we missed. We turn off the music on our commute and turn up the volume on the news. We chit chat about the tragic stories we’ve heard at work or with friends. We spend longer than usual to read the analysis in the Sunday paper. We might even feel distraught, pull out a credit card, and send money to help injured children or provide food aid.

Then the crisis ends or a different crisis replaces it on the front page. We figure everything is basically okay in Gaza. We put Gaza on the backburner in our minds.

This is normal. We can only keep our attention on so many crises at one time. There are lots of problems in the world, and we have our own problems and personal priorities too. This is understandable.

But it’s also a problem. It means that in-between “newsworthy escalations,” what goes on in Palestine, and especially in Gaza, is virtually unseen. Yet, things in Gaza are not “basically okay.”

In fact, Gazans are bombarded by inhumanities, illegalities and indignities. Every single day, Palestinians, old and young, are being shot for “crimes” such as farming or tending animals on their own land near Israel’s “Access Restricted Area.” Every single day, sick people are denied permission to leave Gaza to receive medical care and students are denied permission to leave Gaza to study. Then there is the filthy, salty water that comes out of the tap, the drones that add to the feeling of imprisonment, the hopelessness of growing up a refugee with so few opportunities…

But that’s only half the story!

There are amazing and inspiring things happening in Gaza too. These are stories of individuals and groups that are taking action to improve their communities, to resist oppression, to bring joy to one another and the world. You won’t see those stories on the news – not during times of crisis and not in-between. Real human stories just aren’t newsworthy.

But you will hear some of those stories on my blog. This month, every day in the run-up to my birthday on May 5, I’m releasing one clip of an interview with a Palestinian from Gaza talking about whatever they want you to know.

These clips are a birthday gift from me to you. Please don’t think about it as being bombarded. Look at it as an opportunity. Now, while Gaza is not on the front page, in the quiet of your home, with a very small commitment of time, you can listen to Palestinians from Gaza telling you in their own words what their lives are like.

And if you are so moved, please do pull out your credit card, but not for emergency services that leave no lasting benefit for the population. Give, but give in a way that challenges the siege. Dalia Association’s Gaza Fund (which I am opening with this campaign) is itself an act of resistance. First, we are refusing to allow Israel to split Gaza from the rest of Palestine. We insist on working together to claim Palestinian rights. Second, we are opening a Fund that Gazans themselves will control, under the umbrella and with the support of Palestine’s community foundation. This isn’t “aid” in the sense of charity for have-nots. The Gaza Fund is an initiative for self-reliance, an investment in local capacity, a network for long-term collective self-development.

If you’re not sure yet whether or not Gaza is worth your investment, watch the 1-minute introductions of my new friends from Gaza.

Introducing Najla

Introducing Hekmat

Introducing Amal

Introducing Sameeha

Introducing Nahedd

Introducing Ghada

Introducing Thoraya

Then, consider contributing to the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association. If you give by credit card, please use the pull down menu to earmark your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution for Gaza. If you want to give by check, wire transfer or cash, contact me or Dalia Association at info [at] Dalia [dot] ps to find out how. I will acknowledge every single gift on my blog.

And whether or not you contribute money, please take one political action to help end the siege. For example, write a letter to a political representative or the media letting them know this is a concern you want them to address. And remember to sign up with one of the Palestinian rights groups so you are updated regularly about Gaza and other Palestinian issues.

For the next three weeks or so I’ll be sending slightly longer video clips that address substantive issues: electricity, family separation, youth unemployment, early marriage, and more. Once released, these will always be available for you to watch and share on my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/NoraLesterMurad.

So here’s the deal…

If we work together when Gaza is not in the news, maybe we can make change that will prevent the next “newsworthy escalation” altogether. And just maybe, by working together in these “quiet” times, we can build a movement to demand a just peace so that everyone can get on with the business of developing, loving and being happy.

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