What’s the point of aid under occupation?

By Rory Evans

After 50 years of political deadlock in Palestine, sometimes you have to take a step back and consider the point of it all.

As a development worker based in East Jerusalem, it’s easy to get demoralised. 2017 marks a raft of anniversaries that aren’t exactly cause for celebration: 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, 50 years of occupation, 10 years of the siege of Gaza.

Donors certainly seem bored of the Palestinians and their quest for justice. Aid funding has halved in recent years and the international community seems to have all but given up on the moribund peace process.

There are lots of criticisms of the Palestinian aid industry, many of which I agree with. NGOs and UN agencies are too focused on working around the occupation rather than tackling the root causes. The international community uses aid and development to mitigate or even justify their inaction and weakness in facing up to Israel’s gross human rights violations.

Yet for Palestinians, the quest for justice is not a cause that can simply be picked up and put down again. Here, this is everyday life. And occupation or no occupation, Palestinians have been getting on with their lives for 50 years.

Pressuring the international community to do more to help Palestinians, with genuine action taken against Israel rather than toothless platitudes, is essential. But in the meantime, we have a responsibility to assist Palestinians. Seeing the aid industry as a black hole for funding while the ultimate problems remain unresolved is missing the point.

The international community uses aid and development to mitigate or even justify their inaction

Palestinians desperately require assistance right now so that they can remain steadfast in the face of enormous discrimination and marginalisation. That is why we are doing what we do here, no matter how demoralising it might often be.

An aid project in Gaza drawing to a close the other day reminded me of the purpose of our work, even when sometimes it feels like we are walking through quicksand.

The Vision Project, a programme facilitated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and funded by the UK charity Interpal, has been demonstrating what an incredible difference can be made to the lives of Palestinians even while the occupation machinery shows no signs of slowing down.

For visually-impaired Gazan children, the Israeli occupation is just an added layer of difficulty to their already complicated lives. Those aged 10 or older have already lived through three wars, and for many of the Vision Project’s children, their visual impairments are the tragic result of flying shrapnel.

It’s hardly surprising that around 80 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from trauma due to the ravages of conflict. I can’t begin to imagine how terrifying it must be to live under the threat of war when you are unable to even see what is going on around you.

Even during relative peacetime, these children require constant care and attention because of their additional needs. Yet hard-working parents struggling under the weight of a ballooning humanitarian crisis face an impossible task in providing this additional care.

It’s hardly surprising that around 80 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from trauma due to the ravages of conflict

The Vision Project has been supporting these youngsters, using state of the art “text to voice” technology on iPads to help them “read with their ears”. The programme enables visually-impaired children to download entire school curricula in Arabic. They can even personalise the activities by changing text sizes in line with their level of visual impairment, and switching between young, old, male and female voices.

In a besieged strip of land where even education for the able-bodied is under severe pressure, providing these children with learning support and assistance is vital to ensuring they don’t simply get left behind.

I work out of an office, and in many ways I remain detached from the Palestinian cause. But in a situation where so many opportunities for peace have come to nothing, it is knowing the huge differences that can be made to a child’s life that reminds me why we are doing this at all.Even living and working in Palestine, it’s impossible to imagine what life under occupation is like. I can get up and leave at any time with a flash of my western passport. The difficulty of being partially-sighted in Gaza, or having the added pressure of supporting a disabled child, is enormous on top of the devastating impact felt by all Gazans of Israel’s wars and siege.

Aid may not be the ultimate answer in Palestine, but while political solutions remain elusive, charitable action can bring joy, inspiration and an education to people who might otherwise be forgotten. For the 217 visually impaired Gazan children already helped through the Vision Project, aid is the difference between thriving and merely surviving under occupation.

Rory Evans is a policy researcher for an international development organisation in East Jerusalem. He has experience working in research, political analysis and programme development for a range of organisations in the UK and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Opinions in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its staff or editorial board.