Happy birthday to me, again

One year ago I celebrated my 50th birthday with the launch of a new Gaza Fund at Dalia Association. At the time I wrote that we should strengthen local leaders and local organizations before bad things happen. I suggested that we not only give money, time and raise our voices during wars, but that we take advantage of the periods of calm to invest, work preventively, focus on the long-term.

Of course I didn’t know that just a few months later Gaza would succumb to a terrible war, nor did I know that 8 months later things would be even worse. I didn’t know then that I would be compelled to put aside my novel to work on a new initiative – Aid Watch Palestine – to bring people together to re-envision aid so that it’s accountable to Palestinians and actually helps people.

Now, on the cusp of turning 51, my “profound” words are spoken out and my energy has dispersed. I work day and night to try to make a difference, but without much hope that I can. All around me are friends who are severely depressed, and with good reason.

So what do I want for my 51st birthday? I’m not going to say “peace on earth” or even “an end to the blockade on Gaza.” I’m going to ask for something every personal: I want to learn to find beauty in this ugly world and to find hope against all the evidence that there is none. But lest you say my wish is selfish, I wish this for us all. I wish for humanity to rise to our best selves. That would be a truly happy birthday.

My trip to Gaza 2015

The Gaza Strip from April 2-8, 2015 (but it felt like one year)

 This is Kamal in front of his home in Beit Hanoun.



Kamal LOVED his garden and tried to help me imagine how beautiful it used to be. Later he showed me pictures on his phone and his colleagues at Oxfam went on and on about what a beautiful garden it had been and how much work he had put into it. This is what is left.



Kamal became very emotional when his cat jumped from behind a piece of metal into his arms. He said he felt ashamed that he was no longer able to take care of his own cat.



I had seen photos like these before — destroyed factories in Shujaeya. But seeing this factory (ice cream? juice? I forgot) with Kamal made it totally different. I could see reflected in his eyes how it used to be with people working, trucks coming and going, life in action. I could feel the tragedy in a way I hadn’t before.



This severely damaged nonprofit organization served people with disabilities. I found the name of it ironic given all the death: The Society for the Right to Life.


The only action in Shujaeya in the late afternoon were these young men picking up rubble. They took turns posing for pictures delivering rubble to a middleman who would sell it to be ground up and re-used.




I especially liked these two — cousins I think — who held up stones and said, “Five shekels! Tell the world that we work for five hours to earn 5 shekels! And every time they said, “five shekels” they broke into a hysterical laughter that made me laugh. Hard. Amazing.


And here’s a photo from a friend’s house that speaks volumes about the challenges of living in Gaza where electricity comes for 6 hours and then not again for 18 (or 8 on 16 off during good times). How do you use the bathroom at night when there is no electricity?


Still, Gaza is stunningly beautiful. From this balcony, you can see the least affected part of Gaza City, and it looks especially good because the destroyed buildings in the lower half of the photo have been cleared away (unlike Khuzaa and other places) — they were police buildings.


It was a productive trip. Here I am with the  Steering Committee members from Gaza of our new initiative, Aid Watch Palestine (Jaber Qudih, left; Ibrahem Shatli, middle and Amal Zaqout, far right) and Heba, our team coordination assistant (2nd from right).


And here I am with Heba and 7 of the 9 writers who will write “glimpses of daily life” stories for the Aid Watch website (at a lovely new cafe).


And although I was really, really, really busy, I did spend a little time going around to talk to people about the reconstruction situation. Here is a cement distribution warehouse that was closed (smack in the middle of a work day).


And here is another cement distribution warehouse that was open but not operational. The manager let me take photos of the empty warehouse and explained that he expected a new shipment “any time now.” He gave me lots and lots of information about how bad the cement situation is, including how he personally had been assessed for cement back in September, but he has yet to receive any information about whether he’ll be getting any cement or when. He also talked about the irony of how people who need cement badly get approved after waiting long period but then don’t have the money to buy the cement, or they borrow money to buy cement and then sell it at a profit on the black market to buy food, since they don’t have enough money to do the repairs to their home anyway.


There was some steel (also tightly controlled because it is considered “dual use” by Israel).


And yes, the place was monitored by camera.


We finally found one cement distribution warehouse in Jabalia City that actually had cement!


Customers were very happy to get it, but there were surprisingly few.


But the manager of the facility was not so happy. He said he’s obligated to accept truckloads without inspecting them, and when he finds damaged materials like these, he’s not allowed to return them. That’s the problem with monopoly.


Then we stopped in to watch some work being done to construct a temporary shelter caravan funded by Jordan.


I was told this is a high quality caravan because the walls are insulated, unlike some of the others.


The caravan is a big improvement over the makeshift home the family is living in now on the site of their demolished home.





The mom was younger than I am but had 11 children (two died in the last war and one permanently disabled). Her grown daughter was sweeping the dirt floor when I arrived. They made me fresh lemonade.


I really liked this woman. Her name is Ghalya.


In case you were wondering, Hamas signs are visible. One time the car I was in was stopped at a checkpoint. The officer said he wanted to remind us to pray for the prophet.

United Nations and international NGO signs are also everywhere like at this World Health Organization voucher distribution center (which was not too busy, for reasons I don’t know).



I was very fortunate to be hosted by dear friends, Najla and Jason Shawa in their super comfortable home — despite the difficulty I had keeping track of which water was for drinking, which for hair washing, and which for body washing. I got to play with baby Zoozoo and meet Najla’s famous (and super nice) mom, Rawya.



As I posted on Facebook earlier today, there is only one word to describe what is happening in Gaza: betrayal.




Israel devastated Gaza, but “aid” helps keep it that way

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Marking six months since the ceasefire in Gaza, 30 international aid agencies joined together to issue a statement titled, “We must not fail in Gaza.” At face value, this warning is a responsible step by credible international humanitarian and development actors. Yet, a deeper reading reveals that the statement is neither candid nor wholly truthful. How can we solve the appalling conditions in Gaza or elsewhere if aid actors actively participate — including through this statement — in mystifying the public about what is really going on and where responsibility lies?

Accountability cannot be achieved without honest, critical, constructive discussion about what is really happening. We must tell the whole, complex, discomforting truth, even if it leads us to conclude that “aid” isn’t as helpful as we want to believe it is.


It is not wholly truthful to say, “We must not fail in Gaza” when we have already failed in Gaza. Nearly 2 million people remain essentially imprisoned under military occupation in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. The international community has legal, moral, and professional obligations to hold Israel accountable for these and other violations against Palestinians, but it does not do so. Admitting failure could allow aid actors to stop investing intensive efforts and massive resources in a flawed system. It could open up discussion leading to radical change.

It is not wholly truthful to say 100,000 Palestinians remain displaced when there are nearly 7 million Palestinians displaced. Like other oft-repeated statistics, the number “100,000” actually hides the bigger picture. This number does not include those still displaced from the last Gaza war in 2012; and it does not include those without homes because the Israeli blockade bans sufficient materials to meet the natural growth in demand for housing. It certainly does not include the total number of Palestinians who are not home because they have no homeland. Confronting the problem holistically could allow aid actors to extract themselves from complicity.

It is not wholly truthful to say that the international community is not providing Gaza with adequate assistance because little of the $5.4 billion pledged in Cairo has reached Gaza, as if Palestinians are merely entitled to compensation for recent war damages. In fact, the international response is inadequate because “aid” is offered as consolation for 67 years of statelessness. In fact, decisive political intervention is the only way to achieve a long-term solution.

The recent statement by aid agencies is written in the sophisticated, passive language for which the aid system has become known:

The Israeli-imposed blockade continues, the political process, along with the economy, are paralyzed, and living conditions have worsened. Reconstruction and repairs to the tens of thousands of homes, hospitals, and schools damaged or destroyed in the fighting has been woefully slow.

But whose responsibility is it to reconstruct homes? It is the responsibility of the very same aid actors who signed the statement! Why is it their responsibility? Because they have been contracted to do so by governments that are legal duty bearers, given Israel’s failure to act to ensure the wellbeing of Palestinians under occupation. These actors accept that responsibility, claim the authority to fulfill that responsibility, and are compensated to fulfill that responsibility.

So how can United Nations agencies and tens of international non-governmental organizations declare, “…we are alarmed by the limited progress in rebuilding the lives of those affected and tackling the root causes of the conflict” as if they were mere bystanders?

We must do better! Rather than blame others and plead powerlessness, every one of us, in every sector — public, private, international and local — should reflect honestly about the role we play in maintaining this failed system. We must summon the courage to risk change.

Here is the text of a statement those same agencies might have published had they been willing to speak truthfully. (These are sentiments already whispered in the back rooms of most agencies working in Palestine.)

The Joint Statement by Aid Agencies That Should Have Been Published

We have failed. The recent Gaza war is simply more proof that we, the international community, refuse to exert effective pressure to implement any of our hundreds of UN resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling into question the credibility of our commitment to a global governance system where all people can enjoy freedom, equality and basic rights.

“Aid” has not been an effective tool to offset or mitigate this failure. Taking Gaza as one of many examples, we have accepted funding on behalf of Palestinians and we have paid ourselves handsomely to achieve objectives that we knew to be unachievable within the constraints of our system. We hereby admit that the aid system should be dismantled and radically re-envisioned as a form of solidarity driven by a commitment to justice.

Because we are truly as committed to justice and the rule of law as we always claim, we intend to remain in Palestine with Palestinians until their rights are achieved. We do this as true humanitarians not as careerists, so we will not accept compensation beyond what we need to subsist by local standards.

Furthermore, we will not allow ourselves to be used or blocked. We will insist that our governments act in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (especially Chapter seven, Articles 41 and 42) giving effect to UN decisions via economic, diplomatic and other measures.

We will rebuild Palestine so that it can be free of the need for aid: enjoying territorial integrity, with control over its own natural resources and borders, and able to receive Palestinians from around the world if they choose to become citizens.

We will do this because true help in a situation of inequality requires us to take a stand on the side of justice. We understand this will require us to take risks, but we are driven by our conscience to do what is right.

Malala, where is your money?

The article first appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Youzzeffi announced a donation of $50,000 for the reconstruction of Gaza’s schools. That was in October, in the wake of Israel’s summer assault that affected some 113,500 homes in addition to schools, public buildings, hospitals, utilities and other essential infrastructure.

As part of an investigation into Palestine’s broken aid system, I set about tracking down where Malala’s money is. One month later, I have few answers and my list of questions is growing. UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees and the recipient of Malala’s donation, could not tell me when anticipated repairs would commence or if Israel’s complex restrictions on importation of cement and other building supplies would affect the timeline. It is already nearly four months since the ceasefire agreement, and two months since the donation was made.

I had expected to find out that a portion of Malala’s contribution would go to high overhead costs and that some would be pocketed by Israel in the form of import taxes, security fees, and corporate profits. I did not expect to be unable to get reliable information.

Problems with transparency and accountability are not unique to any one agency. Rather, it is a consequence of an entire aid system that has an interest in protecting itself from scrutiny to avoid being exposed as complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.

US taxpayers give more than $400 million of their hard-earned money to Palestine annually. This supports dozens of aid organizations with noble mandates. But most US taxpayers would be saddened to learn that assistance delivered through the aid system may sometimes do more harm than good.

Off the record, everyone admits that real development in Gaza requires the siege to end and the occupation to cease. But why would Israel end the occupation when it’s so profitable? International donors pay to fulfill obligations that Israel has under International Humanitarian Law, and when Israel destroys donor-funded projects, the donors build again.

Instead of exerting political and economic pressure on Israel to recognize Palestinian rights, international governments offer aid to Palestinians as a sort of “consolation prize.” Then, when Israel makes the provision of aid difficult, the aid actors again fail to stand up for Palestinian rights. In trying to find ways around Israel’s siege, aid may actually entrench it further.

Rather than pointing the finger at particular aid agencies, the taxpayers in whose name aid is being given must demand accountability not only in terms of budget sheets but also in terms of impact.

This is not to say we should expect a quick fix. The urge for simple answers and fast spending is part of the problem. Our objective should not be to simply provide Palestinians with new schools. What we must demand is a bold plan that sees aid disentangled from Israel’s regime of siege and occupation. Rather than merely providing a stopgap until the next bombardment, the process of rebuilding must respect Palestinian rights. Moreover, the aid system must serve the interests of Palestinians in ways that are accountable to Palestinians, taxpayers around the world, and other stakeholders.

Aid actors have a hard job to do. They work in a highly politicized environment, with tremendous security risks, and often without political support from governments. Yet they are legally obligated as duty bearers and by ethical mandates that they must uphold, even in situations like Palestine where “pragmatism” suggests they compromise in order to deliver aid. By accepting billions of dollars in trust for the Palestinian people, aid actors agree to be held to these high standards.

If Malala really wants to help Gaza, she may want to do more than just give money. She may want to ask where it is. Asking for accountability doesn’t show lack of trust, nor does it undermine aid actors’ ability to perform. Asking for accountability is a way of ensuring that international aid doesn’t just do the best it can within a broken system, but that systems be built to ensure that aid actually helps not hurts.


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An update from UNRWA posted March 23, 2015: http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/unrwa-reopens-school-khuza%E2%80%99-gaza