The Politics of International Aid to the Gaza Strip

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VOL. 41


No. 4
P. 32
The Politics of International Aid to the Gaza Strip


The Politics of International Aid to the Gaza Strip
  "Aid in the Gaza Strip has been used to undermine the authority of the Hamas government while failing to challenge the Israeli blockade"


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By Tamer Qarmout & Daniel Beland

International aid to the Palestinian Authority is conditioned in part on democratization and good governance. However, since Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and its takeover of the Gaza Strip, aid agencies have supported the international boycott of the Hamas government. This article argues that aid agencies, by operating in Gaza while boycotting its government, subvert their mandates and serve the political interests of donors and the PA rather than the humanitarian and development needs of Gazans. As a consequence, assistance has, inadvertently and unintentionally, increased Gazans’ dependence on humanitarian aid, impeded economic development, and enabled Israel to maintain its occupation and the blockade of Gaza.

The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 marked the beginning of a new social, economic, and political era for Palestine. The international community, including the United States and the European Union, had to face challenging new circumstances. Since the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the international community, represented through many donors (mainly the European Union and the United States), has invested over U.S. $12 billion in support of the PA budget and to build viable state institutions as part of its commitment to realize the peace process. Moreover, donor support was largely directed at creating Palestinian governing institutions that are based on democratic values, good governance, and respect for human rights. In fact, the 2006 parliamentary elections, which Hamas won, were considered by many analysts as a manifestation of such values. Nevertheless, Hamas’s victory reshaped the behavior of the main international players (particularly the donor community) in the Gaza Strip.

The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006 triggered economic sanctions against the PA by Israel and the Quartet. However, following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the sanctions against the PA were terminated and replaced by severe blockade and military measures introduced by Israel, and a political and financial boycott from the members of the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia). Yet, in the isolated and highly aid-dependent Gaza Strip, to avert a large-scale humanitarian crisis, the international community’s involvement had to continue, despite the new governing role of Hamas. In the years that followed, the aid policies, organizations, and delivery mechanisms of the international community have proved extremely influential in shaping the socioeconomic and political reality of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Yet, the conduct of aid polices in a boycott environment has generated wide controversy and raised many questions about the presumed role and impact of foreign aid. In light of the spring 2011 unity deal that was reached between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo and the tremendous challenges awaiting the expected unity government that includes Hamas, it is crucial to understand and examine donor policies and their impact on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip over the last five years. Doing so should help to better grasp the challenges that lie ahead.

In this article we examine the dynamics and impact of donor assistance in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas takeover. Donor assistance is assessed by how it contributes to Palestinians’ developmental and humanitarian needs. By analyzing aid policies in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and, more specifically, in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, we shows that “conditioned” or “tied” aid can help bring stability and progress to a fragile institutional environment, or it can worsen and exacerbate the situation of aid recipients. We argue that tied/conditional aid in Gaza has compromised the putatively politically neutral role of international aid agencies. Aid in the Gaza Strip has been used to undermine the authority of the Hamas government while failing to challenge the Israeli blockade, which is illegal according to a 2011 panel of independent United Nations rights experts. Finally, we argue that aid has, to a large extent, focused on addressing humanitarian needs at the expense of other equally pressing development issues. It is important to stress that this article neither sympathizes with nor apologizes for either de facto government, in the Gaza Strip or in the West Bank.


Understandings of conditionality have changed over time. Classic conditionality, on the one hand, “was an expression of the donor’s strategic and/or economic interest in addition to claims/conditions to ensure that the aid would be channeled to achieve stated goals.” Conditionality in the modern sense, on the other hand, is a set of strategies employed by donors to stipulate political and/or economic changes from the recipient that otherwise may not have been given a priority. Thus, in the modern sense, there are two forms of conditionality: economic and political. Economic conditionality, which was introduced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, tied economic aid to the implementation of specific economic policies required by the donors, whereas political conditionality usually links donors’ aid to the recipient’s implementing programs in such areas as democratization and good governance. Although both types of conditionality are applied to assistance to Palestine, this article focuses on politically conditioned aid directed at bypassing, isolating, and weakening the Hamas administration in Gaza.


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has developed a vast literature concerning aid in fragile political contexts. The term “fragile states” is often used in the aid and development literature to describe countries facing significant development challenges usually associated with past or ongoing conflict experience. According to OECD literature, fragile states are characterized by weak governance and vulnerability to conflict, together with differentiated constraints—and opportunities—in situations of 1) prolonged crisis or impasse, 2) postconflict or political transition, 3) gradual improvement, and 4) deteriorating governance. The overall situation in the oPt, especially in Gaza, fits the OECD description of a fragile context, although of course the PA is not a state and the Israeli occupation affects all aspects of the context.
The OECD developed the Fragile States Principles as references for actors involved in development cooperation as well as peace and state building in fragile states to maximize positive impact and minimize unintended harm throughout the engagement process. Some of these principles are: take the local context as a starting point; do no harm; align with local priorities in different ways in different contexts; and avoid pockets of exclusion within each context.

Since most countries donating to Palestine belong to the OECD, it might be expected that these principles would guide aid activity there. However, on many occasions aid behavior has not followed these basic principles. In fact, donors have missed serious opportunities to engage constructively with relevant parties, and aid has not been used to promote inter-Palestinian reconciliation or to advance peace between Palestine and Israel.

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TAMER QARMOUT, a Gaza native, formerly worked with the United Nations Development Programme in the Gaza Strip and is a PhD student in the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

DANIEL BELAND is Canada Research Chair in Public Policy at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.