Month: September 2018

UK increases funding for Palestinian refugee camps to counter Trump’s cut

Foreign Office questions
Tuesday September 4th 2018 2.30 pm

New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt moved quickly to counter President Trump’s decision to stop US funding for Palestinian refugee camps by announcing a £7 million increase in UK funding.

“We do not agree with the American Administration’s decision on this issue,”  he said at Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, promising to consult other countries on how to make up the gap in funding caused by Trump’s announcement.

International aid for Palestinian refugees is channelled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which runs 59 refugees camps, 143 health centres and over 700 schools for 4.3 million refugees in five countries.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas announced last Friday that that Germany would increase its contributions to UNRWA, warning that “the loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction”.

On Thursday the White House confirmed that the $200 million cut in US aid will now include the $20 million – exempted so far – that goes to the specialist Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem serving the West Bank and Gaza.

The Augusta Victoria, Makassed and the St John’s Eye Hospital were among the last Palestinian national institutions based in Jerusalem and have a never-ending battle with Israel to obtain permits for their patients to pass through checkpoints to access the hospitals based inside Israel-annexed East Jerusalem.

Lobbying by Christian organisations in the US Congress has protected the hospitals from cuts so far, but the Administration now sees the withdrawal of US aid – including the hospitals – as a way of forcing the Palestinians to accept the Trump plan when it is finally unveiled.

In Gaza UNRWA distributes an absolute food ration to households that are living below $3.87 per person per day (£2.99) while a Social Safety Net ration is allocated to households subsisting below $1.47 per person per day (£1.13). In both cases, the food baskets contain quantities of wheat flour, rice, sunflower oil, sugar, dried milk, lentils and chickpeas.

In 2017 UNRWA distributed in-kind food assistance to over 993,045 beneficiaries in Gaza. In order to define Palestine refugees’ eligibility for emergency food assistance, UNRWA social workers from the Relief and Social Services Programme assessed refugee families’ poverty levels through 91,444 home visits.

One third of the 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees continue to live in refugee camps, including 2.1 million in the West Bank and Gaza where economic restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the blockade of Gaza are the main cause of poverty.

The World Bank estimated in 2013 that Israeli expropriation of Palestinian resources and Israeli-imposed economic restrictions cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year. Without this burden the Palestinian economy would soon outgrow its need for overseas aid.

In the view of many economists international aid to Palestine, especially the EU but including the $200 million of USAid and the £90 million of UK aid, are essentially a subsidy to Israel allowing it to escape its responsibility under international law to shoulder the cost of its 51-year occupation.

Starving Palestinians into submission

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)   In response to the cruel decision taken by the Trump Administration to cut US funding for the United Nations Reliepennycookf and Works Agency, the ​German Government have pledged to increase their financial support for the agency. Will the Minister commit his Government to do the same, so that Palestinian refugees do not suffer as a result of the President’s decision?

The Minister for the Middle East (Alistair Burt)  I am pleased to announce that today we have taken the decision to increase funding to UNRWA by a further £7 million. I spoke just a couple of hours ago to Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl to express our support for UNRWA. We understand the concerns of the United States, but we do not believe that the way it has gone about this is correct. We will continue to support the most vulnerable people, because that also forms a vital part of a just solution to the issues between the Palestinians and Israel.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)  I welcome what the Minister has just said about new funding for UNRWA. Labour has been saying for months that proposed cuts from Donald Trump would damage Palestinian schooling and education and harm the peace process. Will the Foreign Office also now take the lead in organising an international emergency conference, so that others may also pledge more support?

Alistair Burt  I am grateful for her support, and it is a common view in the House. We have increased funding more than once during this year, and more than £40 million extra has been brought forward to support UNRWA. I spoke to the commissioner-general about ​education in particular. He has the funds to open the schools at present and keep them going, but this will depend on further funding decisions in the future. I hope that we will be able to take part in mutual discussions at the UN General Assembly with other states that are affected. This is not just about the West Bank and Gaza; it is also about Jordan and Lebanon. It is about places where children are getting an education. We are talking about an education that is gender neutral in a way in which other parts of the education system in the region are not. The question is: if UNRWA does not provide the education, who might? That is why it is so important to keep this going.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)  May I put it to [the Foreign Secretary] that one of the most disreputable aspects of President Trump’s decision to end United States funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is the fact that he dressed it up as part of a grand negotiating strategy towards what he calls the deal of the century, when in reality that decision is hitting schools and hospitals and the food aid for hundreds of thousands of people in abject poverty?

I applaud the increase in funding for UNRWA, but may I press the Secretary of State a bit more about what action the UK Government and their partners will take to ensure that the vital lifeline that UNRWA provides to vulnerable people around the world will not be lost?

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Jeremy Hunt)
We do not agree with the American Administration’s decision on this issue. Today’s funding announcement is part of our response, but I reassure him that we will talk to other donors as well, to see whether we can make up the gap in funding to UNRWA that has been caused by that decision.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)  The World Health Organisation reports that 10 Palestinian people, including a pregnant woman and her two children, were killed and more than 400 were injured by Israeli forces in one week in August. Instead of deploying even more chatter, why will the international community not actually act and protect some of the most vulnerable people on earth?

Alistair Burt  The experiences in Gaza and the crisis we have seen over the summer have different roots and causes. It is essential that all those who are contributing in any way to the violence in relation to the process desist and find a way through to the peace opportunities that are there. We deeply regret the loss of life, and it is essential that all sides respond to that. Also, the violence that comes from Gaza towards Israel is making negotiations very difficult.

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Israeli extremists taunt doomed Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar

Busloads of supporters of the extremist Israeli organisation Im Tirtzu descended on Khan al ahmar on Friday to taunt the villagers after last week’s High Court ruling removing the last legal obstacle to the demolition of their homes.

Bulldozers are expected to move in as early as Wednesday of next week to raze the famous Bedouin primary school built of mud and tyres and the homes and sheep pens of the 180 residents to the ground. Another four Bedouin villages will also be demolished.

The High Court ruling clears away the legal hurdles, but does not oblige the Israeli government to proceed.  Strong international pressure could still persuade them to defer action or, better still, to let the Bedouins live in peace.

Over 50 British MPs have visited the village of Khan al Ahmar, including Ed Miliband and William Hague when he was foreign secretary, and over 100 have signed a parliamentary petition (EDM 1169 – see below) calling on the UK government to intervene.

Middle East minister Alistair Burt has visited the village on two occasions and has raised the issue with Israeli ministers many times, but British protests have ceased to have any influence on the Israeli government since they are never followed by any action. More than that, the Israelis believe that the protests are for public consumption and that ministers privately support what they are doing.

At a House of Commons debate on Khan al Ahmar in July the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne said:  “By our refusal to act, we make ourselves complicit, don’t we?” Until earlier this year Sir Desmond was the minister responsible for the Middle East at the Department for International Development.

This gives the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt the opportunity to demonstrate the he will not be as supine as his predecessor and face up to the Israeli tactics by attaching a price-tag to the demolition of the village.

One persuasive argument he will hear from the Palestinian Authority is that it is not just the fate of 180 residents and about 170 schoolchildren that is at stake, but the future of the two state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Khan al Ahmar occupies a strategic position on the narrow waist of the West Bank between Jerusalem and Jericho, known as planning area E1, where the Israeli government wants to build a wedge of illegal settlements to cut the West Bank in two and make it impossible to create a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.

The last four American presidents, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama, all made it clear to the Israelis that this was their red line.  No building on planning area E1.  But under Trump there are no red lines and nor is there any clear message from the British government.

Once the bulldozers have demolished Khan al Ahmar, the Israeli government will move quickly to bury the two-state solution in concrete, joining up the existing settlements until they have a huge settler city stretching across the West Bank.

 

Universities may suppress criticism of Israel or support for Palestinian rights

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has added that: 

“If this Bill becomes law, political speech critical of Israel will likely be censored… colleges and universities may suppress a wide variety of speech critical of Israel or in support of Palestinian rights in an effort to avoid investigations by the Department [of Education] and the potential loss of funding.

“If the Bill is dangerous and even unnecessary, then why was it introduced? Reading the ‘fact sheet’ attached to the legislation revealed the Bill’s sinister political intent — and that is, silencing campus student movements and activities that are critical of Israel, in particular the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS).

“All of this is wrong on so many levels. It has the government unfairly influencing a debate that is taking place on college campuses weighing in to support one side, while threatening the other side if they cross an undefined and arbitrary line. These efforts tell Palestinian and progressive Jewish students that their speech will be policed and that they may be subject to penalties.

  • If students were to call Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “a monster” or accuse him and the Israeli military of “a barbaric assault on Gaza” — would they be accused of ‘demonising’?
  • Or what if students spoke about Israel’s 1948 ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians or focused their political work on criticising Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, but said nothing about (or maybe didn’t even care to know about) Turkey’s occupation in Cyprus or Russia’s in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine — could they be charged with delegitimising Israel or applying a ‘double standard’?”

A veiled effort to inhibit pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses’

In another article Dr James J. Zogby, president of Arab-American Institute, wrote:  

“Far from being designed to combat antisemitism, [the Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill] is a thinly veiled effort to inhibit pro-Palestinian activism on college campuses — something that the pro-Israel organisations who helped write the bill have acknowledged.

“The [IHRA] description of antisemitism is both correct and instructive, as are several examples of contemporary antisemitism mentioned in the guidance… Where the guidance goes off the rails is when they try to expand the definition to include ‘antisemitism relative to Israel’.

“With this expansion of the definition of antisemitism, the guidance becomes both subjective and open to dangerous abuse by those who would use it to silence criticism of Israel.

“At the same time that these efforts will act to intimidate and silence pro-Palestinian activity on campuses, they will also serve to embolden pro-Israel student groups to file repeated and frivolous complaints against pro-Palestinian organisations and professors, while diluting and distracting attention from real antisemitism when it rears its ugly head.

“What I find most ironic here is the degree to which this entire discussion has turned reality upside down. I understand awful and hurtful things have been said and that some pro-Israel students may feel “uncomfortable” in some instances or that the BDS debate on their campuses may make them feel like they are in a “hostile” environment. But it is inexcusable to ignore the harassment and threats and defamation endured by students who are advocating Palestinian rights. Oftentimes they are the ones operating in a hostile environment. They are the ones targeted by well-funded campaigns and subjected to threats and harassment. And when Arab Americans write opinion pieces in school newspapers, the comments’ sections are filled with bigotry and hate.”

Why Labour should not adopt the full IHRA guidance – by its author

As the Labour Party weighs up whether to write the IHRA guidance on antisemitism into its legally enforceable code of conduct, it might like to know that there have been two attempts to write the IHRA code into American law. Both failed.

They failed largely because Kenneth Stern, the main author of what became the IHRA guidance, urged members of Congress not to adopt the Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill which would put his code on the statute book.

Here’s what he wrote in his evidence to Congress:

“I write as the lead author of the [IHRA’s] definition of antisemitism to encourage you not to move the Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill which essentially incorporates that definition into law for a purpose that is both unconstitutional and unwise.

“If the definition is so enshrined, it will actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy.

“The worst way to address [antisemitism] it is to create a de facto hate speech code, which is what this Bill proposes to do.

“In 2011 I co-wrote an open letter (together with the President of the American Association of University Professors and on behalf of the American Jewish Committee) outlining how the definition was being abused .. in an attempt to restrict academic freedom and punish political speech. I remain convinced that the arguments advanced in it were correct.

“The definition was never intended to be used to limit speech on a college campus; it was written for European data collectors to have a guideline for what to include and what to exclude in reports.

“Some [of those] who urged the University of California to adopt the definition were clear that they saw it as a vehicle to stop anti-Israel speech, including promotion of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

“I disagree with BDS,.. but it is wrong to say that BDS is inherently a form of antisemitism. Even if it were, it would be improper to try to censor pro-BDS campus activity, which is political speech and should be answered by more speech and education, not by suppression.

“If this Bill is passed, its proponents will have the ability to threaten [US Government] funding at colleges and universities where political speech against Israel occurs, and where administrators then don’t try to stop it, or fail to put the university on record [as] calling such speech antisemitic.

“Think of the precedent this would set.

  • If denying the right of Israel to exist is enshrined as antisemitism by law, would Congress then pass parallel legislation defining opposition to a Palestinian state as anti-Palestinianism?
  • Would it adopt a definition of racism, perhaps including opposition to affirmative action?
  • Would it pass laws defining Islamophobia, anti-LGBT animus, anti-immigrant bias, anti-white bias, etc.?
  • And if campus political speech cannot employ “double standards,” does this mean that political speech against China or Russia or the US which doesn’t employ parallels against other countries might someday be legally suspect too?

“I have been writing about how to address campus bigotry for over 25 years and trained more than 200 college and university presidents on how to engage [with] this issue on their campuses. In my view, this legislation – which is a direct affront to academic freedom – will make the situation on campus worse.

[In a footnote he suggested it would be a better approach for a university to conduct surveys of students, review their curriculum, hold more classes on antisemitism, on hatred, on how to discuss difficult issues, on how to engage [with] the conflicting narratives about Israel and Palestine, etc]

“This legislation is intended to have a negative impact on academic freedom and free speech. Pro-Israel activists will suffer in the aftermath, because they will be seen as trying to suppress speech with which they disagree.”

“There are many things a university can and should do to address antisemitism and other forms of hatred. Imposing a definition of antisemitism makes those steps less likely to be taken, because administrators will default to discouraging and suppressing speech, fearful that if they don’t outside groups will pressure them to do so, using [anti-discrimination legislation] as a threat or a weapon.”

Trump strategy begins to emerge

There is still no sign of the Trump plan to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, but there are signs of what his strategy may be.

The two most difficult issues to resolve are Jerusalem, which both sides want as their capital, and Palestinian refugees, who have a right of return to or compensation for their homes in Israel.

Trump’s plan appears to be to take both these issues “off the table” – by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and by cutting off funds to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

That would just leave the issue of an independent Palestinian state – which he wants to resolve by resurrecting the idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, in which Jordan takes responsibility for security in a Palestinian mini-state in parts of the West Bank and Egypt takes over Gaza.

This ‘solution’ has already been rejected many times by the Jordanians as well as the Palestinians and if this was the much-heralded Trump plan, it would be declared ‘dead on arrival’, according to Ha’aretz.

According to Anshel Pfeffer in Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu’s solution is for the Palestinians to be bullied into accepting limited autonomy in Gaza and a few enclaves in the West Bank. That’s all.

“And twenty months into the Trump administration’s tenure, that is exactly what has been happening. Jerusalem is “off the table,” the administration and key Arab regimes are supporting a separate agreement with Hamas in Gaza, and with the defunding of UNRWA, Washington has indicated it is about to take the refugees issue off the table as well.

“What about the rest of the world? So far, the outcry from other governments, from the West to the Arab world, has constituted little more than a weak chorus. No more.”

UK policy has been clear on Jerusalem. It should be a shared capital for the Israelis and the Palestinians. The key question for the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be whether he stands firm on UNRWA by maintaining and if necessary increasing the UK’s contribution (as the Germans are doing).

Trump move “heartless and dangerous”

On Friday August 31 the US officially announced it was cutting its entire aid budget to UNRWA, the United Nations agency which runs the refugee camps for Palestinian refugees in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Jerusalem.

The EU called the US decision “regrettable” and said it would leave a substantial gap in the agency’s funding.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “the loss of this organisation could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction.”

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney called the Trump administration’s decision “heartless and dangerous.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the decision was “a flagrant assault against the Palestinian people and a defiance of UN resolutions.”

In Israel Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote that: “Israel long ago declared war on the agency, America followed it as usual, all with the aim of removing the refugee issue from the agenda.

“Anyone familiar with the conditions in the refugee camps knows just how dependent their inhabitants are on the UN agency. There might be some waste, certainly there are freeloaders, reform is absolutely necessary, but UNRWA provides basic humanitarian assistance.

“Without it there are no schools, clinics and food in the camps. America owes an indirect debt to the people there; it funds and supports the Israeli occupation, and it has never lifted a finger to reach a genuine solution to their suffering.

“But the new America has lost its shame, too; it no longer even wants to pretend to be the honest broker, or take care of the world’s needy, as its position obliges it to do. Let us say, then, shame on you, America.”

The European Union issued a statement pledging to continue supporting UNRWA and implied that it may increase funding to the agency if deemed necessary.

The statement says that other than the EU’s member states, “many others in the international community, including many Arab states, have pledged their support to the continuity of the work that UNRWA is doing.”

The German foreign minister said Germany would increase its contributions to UNRWA because the funding crisis was fuelling uncertainty.

Sewage or garbage choice for Bedouin

To live next to sewage or next to a garbage dump.  That is the choice now facing the Bedouin from the village of Khan al Ahmar which the Israeli government wants to demolish, according to this Amira Hass report in Haaretz (click for full version).

The 180 villagers have spent a summer fighting the planned demolition of their makeshift homes and their now-famous school built of mud and tyres in the Israeli High Court.

International protests, from the UK government and others, have helped to defer the demolition, but not to defeat it.  Essentially all the arguments in court have been about alternative sites for a forced transfer, not about whether the demolition will go ahead.

New Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will have an opportunity to make a statement about Khan al Ahmar – something his predecessor never did. That may be why the Israeli government never really believed the UK was serious in its protests.

Yet this stretch of desert between Jerusalem and Jericho, where the Bedouin have eked out a living by grazing sheep and goats, is the most strategically important real estate in Palestine, a narrow waist between the north and south of the West Bank without which a Palestinian state could be neither contiguous nor viable.

The last four American presidents, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama, all made it clear to the Israelis that this was their red line.  No building on planning area E1.  But under Trump there are no red lines and nor is there any clear message from the British government.

Once the bulldozers have demolished Khan al Ahmar, the Israeli government will move quickly to bury the two-state solution in concrete, joining up the existing settlements until they have a huge settler city stretching across the West Bank.

The key question is not what the Government will say, but what it will do.  Representations are useless unless they are backed up by some kind of threat. Once the Israelis sense that there is no threat, they will send the bulldozers in, destroying not only the makeshift huts of the Bedouin but the entire structure of the peace process and the “two-state solution”.

What is needed now is plain speaking. If you demolish Khan al Ahmar, we will recognise Palestine.