In late December, dozens of humanitarian organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and local municipalities across the West Bank and Gaza were faced with a harsh reality: they would only have a few weeks, one month maximum, to come up with thousands of dollars if they wanted to keep running their respective programs.
They had just learned that the grants they had been promised for 2019 from USAID, one of the largest and most important humanitarian agencies in the region, would not be coming.
“We were shocked, all of a sudden with no prior warning, we were told the money was gone,” Waleed Khatib, an official with the Beit Jala municipality told Mondoweiss, speaking on a USAID-funded project the municipality had been anxiously waiting on.
In November 2018, USAID announced that by early 2019, their operations will be completely shut down, leaving thousands of local institutions, like the Beit Jala municipality, that benefit from USAID funding empty handed.
Following the decision, a USAID official told Mondoweiss “we will assess future U.S. assistance in the West Bank and Gaza in a global context, with a focus on areas in which we can best advance U.S. national interests and ensure value to the U.S. taxpayer.”
Ambitious plans brought to a halt
For over 20 years, USAID has provided some $5.5 billion for infrastructure, education, health, and economic projects in the occupied Palestinian territory.
When traveling through the West Bank, it is difficult to find a village or city that does not have a large billboard with a USAID logo, whether it be outside a new road, water facility, clinic, or school.
In most places in the West Bank, whether due to lack of financial resources or restrictions on building imposed by the Israeli occupation, roads that were paved decades ago have been left unkept, leading to unsafe and uncomfortable traveling conditions for Palestinians in the territory.
In bigger cities, where populations have rapidly outgrown the existing infrastructures, traffic congestion has reached near unbearable heights.
So when the municipality of the Beit Jala town, located adjacent to the bustling tourist hub of Bethlehem, came up with a plan to alleviate congestion, boost the local economy, and reclaim spaces for pedestrians, they were thrilled that there was someone willing to help them see their vision come to life.
“We were very excited when USAID said they wanted to fund our project to rehabilitate the main road in Beit Jala and turn it into a pedestrian boulevard,” 48-year-old Samia Zeit, the head of the municipality’s engineering unit told Mondoweiss.
“The project is very ambitious, and is the first of its kind in Palestine,” she said. “In big cities like Bethlehem and Beit Jala there are very few green spaces and areas for the people to just walk around and enjoy themselves.”
The municipality was set to receive an estimated $4.5 million from USAID for the costs of widening and paving the road, as well as re-working the existing network of surrounding smaller streets in order to alleviate the current traffic congestion in the town.
“This main road in Beit Jala is the center of economic life in the town, with many restaurants, shops, and hotels,” Zeit said.
“So by turning it into a pedestrian boulevard, not only would we be offering something new and enjoyable for the residents and tourists, but we would also be promoting economic growth and supporting these local business,” she continued.
The municipality was forced to halt its ambitious plans when the announcement was made that USAID would be shutting down all its operations and rerouting funding elsewhere.
“The municipality cannot pay for a project like this on our own,” Zeit told Mondoweiss, adding that despite no news from USAID, she is still holding out hope for the funding.
“The local people and economy would really benefit from something like this, but now we are stuck back where we started.”
Impact on grassroots organizations
The decision to shut down USAID in the West Bank and Gaza was the latest in a series of efforts over 2018 by the Trump administration to force President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the negotiating table — something the PA has refused to do ever since Trump’s 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
As long as the PA would boycott US “peace efforts,” Trump would see that the Palestinian leadership and people would no longer see the millions of US dollars that they so heavily relied upon for years.
For some Palestinians, like 43-year-old Mazen Faraj of The Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF), Trump’s motivations behind the cuts were particularly ironic.
“We are a grassroots peacebuilding organization lead by Palestinians and Israelis ,” Faraj, a resident of Bethlehem’s Deheishe refugee camp, told Mondoweiss. “But because of these cuts, we will have to shut down some of our most successful programs and workshops.”
Faraj, whose father was killed by Israeli soldiers in the Second Intifada, is co-director of the PCFF, an organization made up of Palestinian and Israeli families who have lost relatives to the conflict.
The group, according to its website, “operates under the principle that a process of reconciliation is a prerequisite for achieving a sustained peace,” and has partnered with USAID for 10 years on various projects.
Annually, USAID funds make up approximately 30% of the organization’s budget, including the payroll of 18 full-time employees.
In the wake of the cuts, PCFF has been scrambling to make up for the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds that helped sustained several programs, including workshops educating Israeli high school students about the occupation before they conscript in the army, women’s dialogues, etc.
“Our organization is actively working to promote peace and combat violence and the worsening political situation we see on the ground,” Faraj said, adding that the group is now being forced to shut down programs that have produced over 1,000 alumni throughout the years.
“Now there will be no such groups, fewer dialogues, and no more alumni from these peace building workshops,” he said.
In addition to closing out some of the organization’s program for the new year, Faraj has been charged with the impossible task of reducing salaries and laying off employees.
“These decisions by the US to shut down USAID, UNRWA, the PLO office in Washington, etc. not only affect organizations like ours, but it will inevitably affect the public even more,” Faraj said.
In the long run, Faraj says, without financial and humanitarian aid, “we will see an increase in the lack of hope on the Palestinian side, and increased radicalism in Israeli society.”
“Without hope for the future, we will see the continuation of the cycle of violence that has been going on now for 70 years.”