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Punishing the Palestinians

Congressional legislation aimed at isolating Hamas is unnecessarily harsh and will likely backfire.

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 12:00 AM PDT

Article created by Foreign Policy in Focus.

Since the Palestinian Legislative Council elections earlier this year, in which the Islamist group Hamas captured a majority of seats, the Bush administration has suspended U.S. economic assistance to the Palestine Authority (PA) and has led an international effort to impose sanctions against the Palestinians. This has meant enormous hardship for ordinary Palestinians, with reports that hospitals in Gaza have difficulty providing immunizations for children or dialysis machines for kidney patients. The World Health Organization warns of a “rapid decline of the public health system … toward a possible collapse.”

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Even Jimmy Carter, who as president opposed Palestinian statehood and sent billions of dollars worth of arms and aid to support the Israeli occupation, remarked, “It is unconscionable for Israel, the United States, and others under their influence to continue punishing the innocent and already-persecuted people of Palestine.” Rather than challenge Bush's dubious policy, however, Congress has taken steps to make it even stricter. On May 22, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4681, the “Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006,” by an overwhelming 361-37 majority.

Hamas' armed wing—the Al-Qassim Brigade—has not only waged armed struggle against Israeli occupation forces but has also been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. U.S. policy has been to denote the entire party as a “terrorist organization.”

There is a widespread consensus in the United States that U.S. policy should not reinforce Hamas politically and that direct assistance to Hamas-controlled segments of the PA should be suspended as long as Hamas remains in office and fails to alter its extremist positions denying Israel's right to exist and encouraging the use of violence against civilian targets. However, the recently passed House bill goes well beyond isolating Hamas and appears designed to suppress even moderate Palestinian nationalists. It also places extraordinary limits on the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide assistance to a population already suffering from nearly 50 years of foreign military occupation.

Representative Jim McDermott observed, “It doesn't make sense to put restrictions on funding the NGOs that provide the Palestinian people with hospitals and schools.” The Washington Democrat, a physician by training, said he was “gravely concerned about the fate of millions of innocent Palestinians who rely on international aid for food, health care, and for developing their economy and businesses.” In McDermott's estimation, “This bill will only make the already dire situation even worse … Allowing innocent Palestinians to go hungry while denying them medical treatment cannot possibly correct injustice or lead to peace.”

The bill largely eliminates the president's authority to waive sanctions in the interests of U.S. national security, a longstanding provision of virtually all other U.S. sanctions legislation. It would prevent, for example, a president from providing emergency assistance in the event that subsequent Palestinian elections bring more moderate forces to office or in the wake of a natural disaster.

House Resolution 4681 also appears to be designed to make it impossible for the Palestinians to meet all the demands required to lift sanctions. It thus provides little incentive for Palestinians to challenge the policies of Hamas. Indeed, the bill sets conditions that no Palestinian government could realistically achieve as long as Israel maintains its policies of occupation, repression, land expropriation, and colonization. H.R. 4681 requires squelching “anti-Israel incitement” (such as calls to resist foreign military occupation), prescribes “confiscating unauthorized weapons” (presumably necessitating house-to-house searches to enforce gun control regulations far stricter than those in the United States), and mandates “fully cooperating with Israeli security services” (which have killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in recent years).

And it appears that the sanctions contained in the House bill are meant to be permanent. There is a provision that sanctions would remain in place until the PA “publicly acknowledged Israel 's right to exist as a Jewish state.” Though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), President Mammoud Abbas, and other Palestinian leaders have long recognized Israel's right to exist in peace and security as an independent nation-state, opposition to the second-class status of Palestinian Israeli citizens has precluded most Palestinians from explicitly recognizing Israel as a “Jewish” state per se, a condition that even the Israeli government has never demanded of the PA.

The legislation also bans any aid until the president determines that the Palestinian leadership has made demonstrable progress toward “ensuring democracy, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, and adopting other reforms such as ensuring transparent and accountable governance.” These are conditions that Congress has categorically rejected regarding other recipients of U.S. aid in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. In short, the bill codifies the principle that Palestinians are to be held to much higher standards than are other potential recipients of U.S. foreign aid, even though the PA's governing sovereignty is hobbled by a restrictive foreign military occupation. Is the lack of responsible governance by the Palestine Authority really of concern for the supporters of this legislation, or is misrule being used as an excuse to further subjugate the Palestinian people?

The liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now, which helped lead the fight against this legislation, sent out a press release noting that “H.R. 4681 is an exercise in overreaching that will undercut American national security needs, Israeli interests, and hope for the Palestinian people … undermining those Palestinian officials and activists who recognize Israel, reject terror, and support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Other groups opposing the measure include Jewish Voice of Peace, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Even the Bush administration opposed H.R. 4681 as too rigid and draconian. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow complained that the bill “unnecessarily constrains” the flow of essential humanitarian aid such as food, fresh water, and medicine. The State Department sent a report to Congress arguing, “The bill is unnecessary as the Executive branch already has ample authority to impose all its restrictions and it constrains the Executive's flexibility to use sanctions, if appropriate, as tools to address rapidly changing circumstances.” Senate Republican leaders reportedly saw the House measure as “insanely irresponsible” and have vowed to challenge several provisions in conference committee. Despite all this, the legislation received the enthusiastic support of the House Republican leadership backed by such right-wing groups as Christians United for Israel, the Center for Moral Clarity, and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

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