Mayor of Hebron seeks to un-freeze US aid
Washington - Despair is increasing among young Palestinians due to abysmal economic prospects and growing security concerns, Hebron Mayor Daoud Zatari said.
Zatari recently travelled to Washington to urge the US Congress to release $290 million in aid the Obama administration promised to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2015.
The mayor’s warning comes as violence is escalating across the Holy Land. An American tourist was stabbed to death in Israel on March 8th, one in a series of Palestinian knife attacks, shootings and attacks in which drivers rammed cars into pedestrians dating to September. The Palestinian attacks were triggered by clashes over access to Jerusalem’s Aqsa mosque. At least 28 Israelis and 176 Palestinians have been killed in the incidents.
Zatari, speaking February 25th at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told of the growing unrest after he met US congressmen. But he dismissed suggestions of a new intifada, insisting young Palestinians were acting on their own out of frustration and anger.
“I disagree with anyone who says it is an intifada or an uprising, because none of the political streams were behind what has happened,” he said. “But young people are sending a message to Israelis: ‘Enough is enough. We’re fed up. We have no future. No jobs.’ Thousands of our young graduates and universities are unemployed.”
Zatari has served as dean at two universities in the Palestinian territories. He said that of the thousands of students whose graduation he had overseen, most were unemployed in an economy that he described as crippled by Israeli checkpoints, land seizures, settlements, water shortages and the Israeli separation wall.
“Why can’t our prime minister build the economy? Because our borders are all controlled by Israelis. Air, sea and land,” he said, adding that Palestinian factory owners have been leaving because they are unable to import raw materials.
“They have a hard time releasing raw material out of the [Israeli-controlled] port. It will undergo a very complicated process for security checks. I’m talking about practice, not talking for the sake of talking,” he said.
Zatari described daily hardships of Hebron residents, such as driving 35 minutes around the closure of Al- Shuhada Street in what should be a 5-minute crossing.
Al-Shuhada is a 1km stretch that was Hebron’s main commercial and wholesale hub until 1994 when Israeli authorities closed it after Palestinian riots following an attack in which an Israeli terrorist killed 29 Palestinians during Friday prayers.
“We’re talking about a total of 1,200 shops that remain closed,” the mayor said. “The Israeli Army also took over the old vegetable market and the bus station [which now serves as an army checkpoint].”
Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organisation that supports a two-state solution, alluded to a general and rising sense of anger and disenchantment among Palestinians in its condemnation of the latest wave of violence.
“This terrible escalation… is a reminder that Israel’s security threats are not limited to tanks, fighter planes and missiles… but are also attributed to the festering occupation, its ongoing rule over millions of disenfranchised, oppressed, angry Palestinians who can’t see hope of a better future,” the organisation said in a statement.
Zatari said rebuilding the Palestinian economy poses many challenges, among them the reliance on outside support, with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) being one of the main lifelines.
About $370 million was allocated to the PA in 2014 through what the US Congress terms the Economic Support Fund. Half of the funds dispensed usually goes to pay PA electricity and water bills to Israel and Jordan. The other half pays for development projects run by USAID.
In 2015, the amount was cut to $290 million for various reasons. Some insiders say funds were diverted from the PA to Amman, which has seen its US aid rise to $1 billion per year to support Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Opinions vary as to why the funds for the Palestinians were being held up by Congress. Zatari said it was in retaliation for the PA’s request for statehood at the United Nations. Some Washington insiders said Congress is retaliating for the PA’s efforts to build a war crimes case against Israel with the International Criminal Court.
The PA receives more than $1 billion in aid from the European Union, the largest donor.