ISSUE 28 December 2004

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

International humanitarian aid to the Palestinians

by Avraham Lavine, Ministry of Social Affairs, State of Israel

Avraham Lavine has been responsible for liaison between the Israeli government and international organisations working on behalf of the Palestinians for the past 35 years. Here he discusses the nature and scope of international humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian territories.

Overnight, following the Six Day War in June 1967, Israel became responsible for populations living in the West Bank and Gaza, but without any experience in establishing an administration to provide them with basic services. At that time, few development activities, if any, were being undertaken, while most rural areas of the West Bank were cut off from the mainstream of society, lacking the most basic infrastructure and civil services.

The importance of international aid

From the outset, Israel considered the activities of international aid agencies to be crucial in complementing the Civil Administration’s efforts to deliver services and promote social and economic development. International aid agencies working in the West Bank were asked to continue providing the same assistance under the terms of existing contracts with the Jordanian government. Five international aid organisations responded positively: Catholic Relief Services, the Lutheran World Federation, the Near East Christian Council, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Swedish Organisation for Individual Relief. Material assistance was mostly in the form of surplus food commodities from the US. Health services for Palestinian refugees were provided by the Lutheran World Federation, under contract to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the aid organisation CARE-USA, which had been working in Israel since 1948, undertook US government-funded emergency feeding and food-for-work programmes in Sinai, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The UNRWA, with the agreement of the Israeli government, continued to provide services to the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. These and other international aid agencies all enjoy exemptions from taxes and customs duty on all their programme and administrative needs, directed at both refugee and non-refugee populations. These exemptions have, together with joint Israeli funding of selected projects, amounted to millions of dollars budgeted by the Israeli government for development activities in the administered territories.

Neither UNRWA nor, for that matter, any other international agency or foreign government, has been willing to undertake or participate in projects designed to improve the unacceptable living conditions and overcrowding in the refugee camps, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and to effectively rehabilitate the Palestinian refugee population. To give one example. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli Civil Administration undertook new housing projects in Gaza, allowing the eventual relocation of more than 11,500 families away from the hardships of the refugee camps. Despite appeals by the Israeli authorities, no international humanitarian assistance was forthcoming to enable the rehabilitation of significantly larger numbers of refugee families.

In a rare international effort, the American Save the Children Federation and the Civil Administration’s Department of Social Affairs undertook a joint community work project in the new Dekel neighbourhood of Rafah. The work, which began in 1972, was intended for 10,000 residents from the Rafah refugee camp. The project included the construction of a community centre and the introduction of the new residents to the principles of community organisation using community work techniques.

Despite the international consensus around maintaining the status quo of the refugee population, and despite often divergent political views, the relationship between the government of Israel and the international aid agencies has, I believe, been friendly and cooperative. The basis of this relationship has been the common goal of advancing the well-being and social and economic development of the population of the Palestinian territories. The Department of International Relations of the Ministry of Social Affairs has, from the outset, been the government’s official liaison with international aid organisations working in the Palestinian territories. The government’s policy has been to coordinate their activities, in order to maximise the use of aid resources and avoid duplication, while engaging them in programmes designed to reduce the dependency of individuals and families; to promote the development of seriously deficient infrastructures such as access roads, water supplies and electricity; to reinforce health, educational and social services; to encourage economic activity; and to produce a significant rise in standards of living. The latter goal was achieved, in part, also by the employment of 120,000 Palestinian commuter works by Israeli firms and enterprises. (The current security situation has virtually closed the door on this possibility, thus contributing to the on-going humanitarian crisis.)

Frequently, international agencies were approached by the Department of Social Services of the Civil Administration with requests to assist in the development of innovative services or programmes, within the context of strategic planning of services for the administered territories. Organisations, while obviously not obliged to do so, would often agree to undertake such new activities. For example, when UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Office applied to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in 1980 to carry out a programme on behalf of Palestinian children and mothers, not only was the initiative welcomed, but innovative projects were proposed by the Ministry that would augment existing services. A proposal to establish four child development centres, in Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron and Gaza, with the assistance of an Israeli expert consultant, was accepted by UNICEF and implemented jointly with the Ministry. The centres identify and treat congenital and other disabilities in babies and children up to six years of age. Another programme, proposed to UNICEF by the Civil Administration’s Department of Health for joint implementation, established 50 health centres in outlying rural areas, and trained health workers to staff them. These still act today as primary ports of call for those in need of medical care, with subsequent referral, if necessary, to clinics or hospitals in urban areas.

By 1994, when responsibility for all civilian services in the West Bank and Gaza was handed over to the newly established Palestinian Authority, great progress had been achieved, with the considerable assistance of 26 international aid agencies then registered with the Ministry. At that time, the social and economic situation in the Palestinian territories augured well for continued progress towards eventual economic self-sufficiency, albeit within the context of regional interaction and cooperation. The necessity for some international agencies to once again provide emergency humanitarian aid to the population in the Palestinian territories, in contrast to the programmes of sustainable development that characterised most of the previous three and a half decades, is thus an unwelcome regression. The complicated security situation has made it more difficult for international humanitarian agencies to function. However, the Israeli government’s policy since 1967, to promote and encourage the work of these organisations, has not changed. Everything possible is done to protect their contractual privileges, to facilitate their activities and to ease the movement of their personnel, both in and out of the country, as well as in and around the Palestinian territories. Representatives of international organisations have reported to us that there are relatively few major delays for their international personnel at checkpoints. When delays do occur, there is usually someone to turn to for help, either the Coordinator for Social Affairs and International Organizations in the Liaison Office with the Palestinian Authority, or Israel Defense Force (IDF) officers specially appointed to liaise with international organisations.

The perception of international humanitarian aid as a practical and rational expression of humankind’s universal, mutual responsibility, rather than as a mere tool of foreign policy, raises questions about the large number of international humanitarian organisations providing assistance to a relatively small Palestinian population. Whether their decision to do so is driven by religious, political or exclusively humanitarian motives, it is difficult to reconcile the seemingly disproportionate allocation of aid resources, when far greater needs exist in many other parts of the world. According to the Geneva-based organisation UN Watch, for example, the UN provides over 12 times more in subsidies per beneficiary to the Palestinian economy than to the combined economies of six southern African countries.

CARE-USA withdrew its presence from the West Bank and Gaza in the 1980s because it considered the level of the economy and standard of living in those areas to be too high to justify diverting resources from other more needy regions of the world. (CARE returned to the West Bank and Gaza in 1994.) In 1993, an understanding was reached between the Ministry of Social Affairs and Catholic Relief Services, which had taken over all US government feeding programmes in the West Bank and Gaza, to end the distribution of food rations as both unnecessary and as an obstacle to the reduction of dependency. However, the Palestinian Authority asked for a continuation of food distribution for what was intended to be a limited interim period. Since then, in the wake of the virtual collapse of the Palestinian economy and the effects of the intifadah, additional food distribution programmes were implemented by the ICRC and the World Food Programme.

At the time of writing, 44 international humanitarian organisations working in the Palestinian territories are registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs. This accounts only for those organisations with offices and representations in Israel; the number of international organisations actually working in the Palestinian territories is, in fact, much higher. AIDA, an informal association of international aid agencies serving the Palestinian population, currently has 72 members.

A possible argument in favour of a proliferation of international aid agencies in the Palestinian territories might be that the actual implementation of projects by these agencies themselves helps to obviate the need for accountability, considered by many as essential in following up the use of cash funds transferred to the Palestinian Authority. The accountability issue remains to be resolved to the satisfaction of donor governments and international donors. (A more pertinent question, perhaps, is how the allocation of major resources can be rationalised when the present situation is a man-made emergency that could easily have been avoided from the outset.) Given the constellation of current international affairs, it is impossible to conclude that all humanitarian aid to the Palestinian territories is indeed devoid of foreign policy considerations, whether they be those of governments, international bodies or international humanitarian organisations.


Avraham Lavineis Director of the Department of International Relations, Ministry of Social Affairs, State of Israel.


References and further reading

Abd’al Latif A’Sha’afi, From a Refugee Camp to the Dekel Neighbourhood in Rafah in Community Work in the Gaza Strip (Jerusalem: Israel Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 1980).

Arnon A. Bar-On, Social Security on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip 1967–1987 (Jerusalem: Israel Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 1989).

Pearl Herman, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – A Report (Wellesley, MA: Center for Near East Policy Research, 2003).

Avraham Lavine, ‘Social Services in the Administered Territories’, in Daniel J. Elazar (ed.), Judea, Samaria and Gaza: Views on the Present and Future (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1980).

Avraham Lavine (ed.), Community Work in the Gaza Strip (Jerusalem: Israeli Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, 1980).

T. H. Tulchinsky, Health in Judea, Samaria and Gaza 1967–1994 (Jerusalem: Israeli Ministry of Health, 1994).

Yitzhak Zaccai, Coordination of Government Operations in Judea & Samaria and the Gaza District: An Eighteen Year Survey (1967–1985) (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defence, 1986).

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