Henry Selz was for the last nine years the Middle East representative of American Near East Refugee Aid, based in East Jerusalem. He spoke with Joe Stork and Tom Russell in Washington in late August 1985.
You worked in the West Bank for nine years. How has your assessment of the situation changed from when you first got involved?
When I came, I thought it was a transitional situation. It certainly seems to me that any resolution is farther off now than it was when I arrived nine years ago.
How does Israel’s economic crisis affect the situation for the people under occupation?
To some extent, it compels the Israeli government to cut back on the expansion of the settlements, and to cut back in general in West Bank spending. It also adds to unemployment. I don’t think it is going to make a great difference, though, because money is not the issue. That is the depressing thing about what is happening now: We are getting a great deal more money going into the Occupied Territories than we have had before, from the US. There is also a good deal of “steadfastness” money that comes in. But money is counterproductive in many ways. I find it difficult to tell a “steadfastness” program from a pacification program except for the recipients on either end. The effects are the same. It is corrupting and it is numbing.
The money from private remittances is dropping off somewhat?
I suppose it is. What I come upon directly is the change in the small-scale development program in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I see new agencies coming, talking about setting up new programs, and it seems to me that much of what is being funded could be funded from local resources. A voluntary agency working in that sort of situation has no business doing anything that doesn’t have a strong element of empowerment in it. If poverty is the issue, the voluntary agency belongs in Africa or Asia. There are very strong reasons for being on the West Bank, but they are not the usual voluntary agency priorities.
Empowerment is exactly what the occupiers are most concerned about.
For a long period, we had over $6 million in disapproved projects. That has changed in the last several months, because of the Peres government and because the things we were proposing were really not all that earth-shaking — things like expanding a chicken feed plant or a hatchery. There has been great Israeli sensitivity towards increased productivity, land reclamation, irrigation, strengthening institutions, high-level vocational training.
Will it now be more possible to fund these institutions?
In the very narrow area in which we work, I think so. I am really strongly opposed to infrastructure projects like domestic water, domestic electricity, sewers. All these things are fine in their place. It is very difficult to be opposed to them. But these are obligations of the government, and any time we take these over we are in fact subsidizing the occupation. They should not involve the voluntary agencies because that indicates that an American agency recognizes the occupation government and supports its benevolent initiatives on behalf of the Palestinians. What we are doing is not all that subversive, yet we go through these blasts periodically about “laying the infrastructure for an independent Palestinian state.” It is very difficult to defend yourself against something you have no objection to but you don’t happen to be doing, without humiliating yourself.
Have you been able to set up some programs that have some real impact?
Sure. The Tarqoumiyya Press Cooperative outside Hebron. We began working with it six years ago. At that time it had about 500 members, now it has over 1,400 members. They are almost without exception very small Hebron farmers. They had an olive press. We took a group of already successful olive press cooperatives which work only one to two months a year and tried to give them some functions which would use their competence and energy throughout more of the year. We proposed an olive seedling plant nursery for Tarqouimyya and two olive oil tinning factories for other coops and one soap factory with a fourth coop and a bulldozer-tractor land reclamation unit. So we got all those going. The nursery is doing very well. The price of seedlings on the West Bank is down by half.
What do you make of the US government’s talk about “improving the quality of life?”
The Benvenisti report on this and on the voluntary agencies was immensely useful, because it got all the issues out on the table for the first time. His explanation was the correct one: There are two radically opposed interpretations of the phrase “quality of life.” It can either mean trying to give the Palestinians a little greater control over their day-to-day existence, such as small-scale development programs of the type we have been trying to do, or it can mean projects which increase personal wealth without strengthening institutions or strengthening communities, in a way which the Israeli government is perfectly happy about.
You referred to the problem of the “steadfastness” funds.
What I mean by corrupting is that you really do get people lining up for their money from all directions. The political strings are different but the effect is more or less similar. People apply for outside support for things that they could probably do themselves, or take aid which does not require them to do anything themselves or put money into it. Aid should free you for something that you couldn’t do before and require you to put something into it — work, money, risk. The rest of it is corrupting.
The political problem is primary?
Almost the sole problem. If steadfastness means anything, it means remaining steadfast under difficult conditions. I’m not rejoicing in the situation becoming more difficult, but I suppose you can make a somewhat diabolical inference that if things are very easy, the occupation will go on even longer.