[Marxism] USA funds Palestinian Authority's electoral bid against Hamas

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 22 08:00:40 MST 2006


U.S. Funds Enter Fray In Palestinian Elections
Bush Administration Uses USAID as Invisible Conduit

By Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 22, 2006; A01

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Bush administration is spending foreign aid 
money to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of 
crucial elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge 
from the radical Islamic group Hamas.

The approximately $2 million program is being led by a division of the U.S. 
Agency for International Development. But no U.S. government logos appear 
with the projects or events being undertaken as part of the campaign, which 
bears no evidence of U.S. involvement and does not fall within the 
definitions of traditional development work.

U.S. officials say their low profile is meant to ensure that the 
Palestinian Authority receives public credit for a collection of small, 
popular projects and events to be unveiled before Palestinians select their 
first parliament in a decade. Internal documents outlining the program 
describe the effort as "a temporary paradigm shift" in the way the aid 
agency operates. The plan was designed with the help of a former U.S. Army 
Special Forces officer who worked in postwar Afghanistan on 
democracy-building projects.

U.S. and Palestinian officials say they fear the election, scheduled for 
Wednesday, will result in a large Hamas presence in the 132-seat 
legislature. Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is 
at war with Israel and is classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist 
organization. But its reputation for competence and accountability in 
providing social services has made it a stiff rival of the secular Fatah 
movement, which runs the Palestinian Authority and has long been the 
largest party in the Palestinian territories.

The plan's $2 million budget, although a tiny fraction of USAID's work 
here, is likely more than what any Palestinian party will have spent by 
election day. A media consultant for Hamas said the organization would 
likely spend less than $1 million on its campaign.

Elements of the U.S.-funded program include a street-cleaning campaign, 
distributing free food and water to Palestinians at border crossings, 
donating computers to community centers and sponsoring a national youth 
soccer tournament. U.S. officials are coordinating the program through 
Rafiq Husseini, chief of staff to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the 
Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah.

In recent days, Arabic-language papers have been filled with U.S.-funded 
advertisements announcing the events in the name of the Palestinian 
Authority, which the public closely identifies with Fatah. Some of the 
events, such as a U.S.-financed tree-planting ceremony here in Ramallah 
that Abbas attended last week, have resembled Fatah rallies, with 
participants wearing the trademark black-and-white kaffiyehs emblazoned 
with the party logo, walls plastered with Fatah candidates' posters, and 
banks of TV cameras invited to record the event.

"Public outreach is integrated into the design of each project to highlight 
the role of the P.A. in meeting citizens needs," said a progress report 
distributed this month to USAID and State Department officials. "The plan 
is to have events running every day of the coming week, beginning 13 
January, such that there is a constant stream of announcements and public 
outreach about positive happenings all over Palestinian areas in the 
critical week before the elections."
'Window of Opportunity'

The program highlights the central challenge facing the Bush administration 
as it promotes democracy in the Middle East. Free elections in the Arab 
world, where most countries have been run for years by unelected 
autocracies or unchallenged parties like Fatah, often result in strong 
showings by radical Islamic movements opposed to the policies of the United 
States and to its chief regional ally, Israel. But in attempting to manage 
the results, the administration risks undermining the democratic goals it 
is promoting.

U.S. officials and consultants involved in the program acknowledge that it 
generated debate inside the aid agency and the two firms hired to manage 
the project. But U.S. officials said the goal of limiting Hamas's influence 
in the next Palestinian government overshadowed concerns about the decision 
not to disclose the U.S. government's role in the campaign.

"We are not favoring any particular party," said James A. Bever, the USAID 
mission director for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. "But we do not 
support parties that are on the terrorism list. We are here to support the 
democratic process."

Another U.S. official involved in the program said: "I'm not going to 
apologize for it. I'm proud of the work we've done."

"We weren't trying to be some black-box SWAT operation," said the official, 
who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the 
record. "But we want to be able to say we did everything we could to 
support peaceful coexistence here. There's no tomorrow if we end up with a 
worsening conflict" after the elections.

Hamas is reaping the benefits of years of grass-roots social work and 
political organizing in the West Bank and Gaza as it prepares for its first 
national election. It opposes Israel's right to exist and has vowed to 
maintain its armed wing, which has carried out attacks and suicide bombings 
inside Israel and the territories.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is suffering from a reputation for 
corruption, divisions within Fatah and a continuing Israeli occupation of 
the West Bank that has made Abbas's pursuit of a negotiated peace 
settlement unappealing to many Palestinians. Public opinion polls have 
shown the race tightening in recent weeks, with Hamas now running even with 
Fatah.

According to interviews with U.S. and Palestinian officials here and in 
Washington as well as project documents obtained by The Washington Post, 
the plan to help promote the Palestinian Authority, and by extension Fatah, 
began emerging as Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza in August.

"In light of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, a critical window of 
opportunity has emerged," stated an October document outlining the scope of 
the Gaza Action Plan Support Unit, as the program is known. The document, 
prepared by ARD, a consulting firm based in Burlington, Vt., that was hired 
to manage the project, said the goal was to "help lay the foundation for 
successful, moderate leadership in Gaza as well as the West Bank." It 
listed the Palestinian Authority as its "direct beneficiary."

Most U.S. development assistance here, which last year totaled roughly $400 
million, consists of water pipelines, sewage treatment plants, public 
libraries and roads, which bear the USAID logo alongside the seal of the 
Palestinian Authority. But Bever said the agency, which previously wanted 
to showcase U.S. aid, recently decided to emphasize the Palestinian 
Authority's role to a greater degree after polls showed a majority of 
Palestinians are aware of the overall extent of U.S. assistance.
Downplaying U.S. Credit

The project is supervised by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, 
which specializes in promoting U.S. interests during times of political 
change in foreign countries and has the ability to spend money faster than 
other departments, according to agency officials.

The office hired ARD, which in turn subcontracted the project to a 
Washington-based firm, Strategic Assessments Initiative, or SAI, known for 
its largely academic work on issues such as Palestinian security reform. 
SAI had no experience in development work and had never worked for USAID.

Amjad Atallah, the company's president, said he was not authorized to talk 
about the project, though he said it raised concerns within his 
organization. Atallah said he agreed to work on the contract only after 
USAID agreed to his requests that Palestinian teams work in the field and 
that the program be coordinated through the office of President Abbas, who 
is not a candidate in the election.

USAID also brought in an independent consultant, Larry Sampler, to "help us 
think about how to do this," the U.S. official involved in the program 
said. Sampler was described by people who know him as an earnest, intense 
man who served 15 years in the Army Special Forces and worked as a U.S. 
contractor in Afghanistan.

According to documents from a planning presentation Sampler gave to U.S. 
officials in Washington and Tel Aviv in October, he raised several 
questions about how closely the U.S. government should be identified with 
the project. The documents also suggest that U.S. officials expected the 
project to become involved in party politics.

"To whom should credit accrue?" Sampler asked in one slide of the 
presentation. "Issues of branding and how closely associated candidates and 
parties want to be or should be associated with the USG [U.S. government]. 
What should be the nature of that relationship?"

Plans called for roughly 40 small projects or events, ranging in cost from 
$5,000 to $50,000 each, that would benefit the Palestinian Authority. No 
USAID logos would be used.

Asked if the decision not to use the USAID brand was a way to hide its 
involvement, Bever said, "I could see it could look that way." He said some 
of the projects might bear the agency logo, although it was not apparent on 
those visited by reporters from The Post or in ads published this week.

"We wanted to give maximum credit to the Palestinian Authority and to the 
freely elected president, Mahmoud Abbas, for taking the initiative and for 
inviting us to help get the message out to the Palestinian people," Bever said.

The point man in Abbas's office was his chief of staff, Husseini, a member 
of a prominent Jerusalem family. In an interview last week, Husseini said 
U.S. officials told him they had about $2 million to spend on 30 or so 
projects before the elections. He said his office provided them with "names 
of people who could do this best."

"It was some small money to help us quickly affect the lives of people. It 
was to show that the Palestinian Authority cares," Husseini said. "They 
were very responsive and understood we needed to have a better impact."

"Campaigning may come into this, but only marginally," Husseini said. "It 
is not political campaigning, but campaigning for the Palestinian national 
cause, as Mahmoud Abbas sees it."

In recent days, the newspapers Al-Ayam and Al-Quds have featured ads for 
projects described in the Action Plan Support Unit's most recent progress 
report. On some days, three such ads -- all bearing the seal of the 
Palestinian Authority but no USAID logo -- appeared on a single page.

"Why so many ads at the same time?" said Saad Abdul Hadi, whose 
Ramallah-based public relations company, Al-Nasher, is doing the 
advertising. "Because we are in a very sensitive time, in the elections. 
That's why now."

In Jericho last week, 10 teams gathered in the municipal stadium in the 
hopes of winning the first-ever Olive Cup, the U.S.-funded championship of 
Palestinian youth soccer. As boys darted across the patchy field in 
uniforms purchased with money from USAID, banners bearing the emblem of the 
Palestinian Authority and a new logo created for the U.S.-funded projects 
celebrated the event, which was attended by several hundred Palestinians.

Ibrahim Sabbah, 40, director of the sports division of the Ministry of 
Youth and Sports, said he had been asking Palestinian leaders for years to 
finance such a tournament. This month, Husseini's office told him $10,000 
was available immediately.

"I was very surprised," Sabbah said. "And very happy. We were able to do 
this very quickly because we had been planning it for years. But we'd never 
had the money until now."

Sabbah said he knew only that the funds came from the Palestinian Authority 
president's office. It didn't matter who paid for the event, he said 
happily, as teams from Jenin and Nablus took the field. In a few hours, 
representatives from Husseini's office would arrive with the Olive Cup 
trophy and medals for the winners.





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