TACOMA, Washington — The Palestinian territories remain one of the poorest areas of the world. With limited access to necessities to improve their quality of life, 80% of the population relies on foreign aid for survival. Millions of individuals in these territories are unable to relocate and have limited opportunities for upward economic mobility. Israel also possesses pockets of poverty where individuals struggle to live with limited government support. Generally, the most economically unstable group is the Ultra-Orthodox. Many families live in close quarters and rely on government assistance. This is because a significant portion of the population dedicates all their time to studying the scriptures. As a result, government funds are integral to maintaining a sustainable quality of life. A tension exists in some part due to the economic disparity between Israel and Palestine.
Approaches to Poverty
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the Executive Director with Churches for Middle East Peace. Rev. Dr. Cannon explained in an interview with The Borgen Project how the economic discrepancy per capita between individuals living in Israel and the Palestinian territories necessitates looking at each geographic area specifically. The per capita income in Gaza, for example, remains the lowest in the area at $3,239.7 per year.
In the West Bank and Gaza, many humanitarian aid organizations such as World Vision, Save the Children and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) contribute to the growing needs stemming from the Palestinian refugee crisis beginning in 1948. Also, the United Nations contains an agency branch named The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It focuses specifically on aid and development to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East and around the world. Israel vets and monitors many of these organizations’ projects.
Distribution of Aid
Regarding the complexity surrounding the Israeli and Palestinian relationship, Rev. Dr. Cannon posed the question of “how is humanitarian aid distributed without fostering or unknowingly supporting factions of violent resistance?” With the difference in the power structure, foreign aid is imperative for Palestinian people, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the distribution of humanitarian aid can be difficult because of the realities of the occupation and its effect on East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
Rev. Dr. Cannon explains how the Israeli government monitors and controls the type of aid entering the territories to ensure these supplies support humanitarian purposes. Ideally, full access for humanitarian purposes would be granted while also allowing Israel to maintain its own legitimate security needs. Nonetheless, many Palestinians remain in extreme poverty and lack the necessary resources to build homes and feed their families. Both the West Bank and Gaza have limited access to healthcare. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become increasingly problematic.
Impact of COVID-19
As a whole, both Israel and the Palestinian territories have experienced significant losses during the pandemic. Like in many nations with significant economic disparity, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the poor population due to a lack of resources available for adequate quarantining and social distancing. Rev. Dr. Cannon explained how this reality is still visible throughout some Palestinian territories where a lack of medical support and vaccine access had resulted in the virus still running rampant throughout the Gaza and West Bank.
The Complex Issue of Vaccines
The delivery of the vaccine posed another complexity for the health and safety of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Due to economic disparity, much of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have little to no access to the vaccine. In comparison, Israel is currently the world leader in the proportion of the population vaccinated. It has successfully fully vaccinated 53.3% of the population as of Wednesday, April 14.
Despite a lack of access to vaccinations, the leaders of the West Bank and Gaza territories created a distribution plan and applied for financial aid to hopefully gain access to the vaccine shortly. Many of the human rights organizations working directly with the Palestinian territories have called the Israeli authorities to live up to their legal obligation of support for the health of Palestinians. As seen with other resources, this is easier said than done.
The Need for Foreign Aid in Palestine
Earlier this month, Biden announced the administration would release hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to support the Palestinian people. This package would support humanitarian efforts and support economic and developmental security. Some of these funds will go to UNRWA, a branch of the U.N. focused specifically on assisting with the Palestinian refugee crisis.
This relief package includes at least $235 million for critical infrastructure and health needs to foster a better relationship between the U.S. and both Israel and Palestine. This release of funds reversed the policy enacted by President Trump in 2018, where he ended direct aid to Palestine. While most Israelis support aid to Palestine because of the belief that it mitigates conflict, there are some Israelis who dislike aid distribution to Palestine without first the guarantee that new reforms will be implemented, such as ending violent resistance and altering curriculum in schools.
The funds allocated by the U.S. government must be distributed within the bounds of the Taylor Force Act. This Act required that the U.S. gives aid through third-party nonprofits and U.N. organizations as opposed to directly funding the Palestinian government. Ideally, these funds assist in Palestinian access to the COVID-19 vaccine and future health security.
Even amid a tumultuous past, the brutal grip of the pandemic is slowly loosening. Instead, there is hope for a safer and healthy future. Oxfam International states how this future will hopefully include a strong and lasting peace for civil society. A vital part of attaining this future, however, will involve addressing this economic disparity.
– Kate Lucht