Unrest Swells in Hamas-Led Palestinian Territories

With little aid reaching people in need and crucial tax revenue cut off by Israel, civil unrest is on the rise in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territories. Madeleine Brand talks with Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic Studies about the latest troubles facing Palestinians.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

But first, to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territories where the economic situation is dire. Hospitals are running out of supplies. Public workers haven't been paid in months. And violence on the streets is escalating.

Since Hamas gained power, western countries cut off aid saying they didn't want to support a terrorist organization. Yesterday, though, the West relented a bit. The quartet of international mediators, that's the U.S., the E.U., Russia, and the U.N., decided to allow some aid into the Palestinian territories.

And here to discuss this is Jon Alterman. He's director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Director of the Middle East Program, Center for Strategic Studies): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

BRAND: Well, how can this new proposal help Palestinians on the ground, some of whom are suffering deeply?

Mr. ALTERMAN: What's been happening in the last few days is we've seen both on the international side and on the Israeli side decisions that we have to let a little more money through. We can't let this whole thing collapse.

That will go some way toward averting a dire catastrophe in the near term. But it doesn't begin to solve the problem in the longer term.

BRAND: Well, let's talk about the near term for a moment. How will the money actually get to the people when everyone has said they don't want to give the money directly to Hamas?

Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, they're working out mechanisms where the money goes through Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and somebody who the international community has a lot more faith in.

But how you actually do that, where the money goes, what people do with the money, what kind of accountability you have is really extraordinarily complex. You're talking about, perhaps, physically moving money across borders and putting it into people's pocketbooks. And that's a very complex operation.

I don't think anybody has any clear idea how we'll do it right now.

BRAND: Physically meaning putting the money in suitcases and carrying it across the border?

Mr. ALTERMAN: That may actually be what's involved. Palestinian credit is no good with anybody. That's one of the reasons they can't get gas these days, because people say I won't give you gas on credit.

So it may be that this becomes a cash economy. And the only way to actually pay people is to bring in cash.

BRAND: Now, you said that this is not going to help Palestinians in the big picture, for the long run. What did you mean by that?

Mr. ALTERMAN: Well, it's a little aspirin for somebody who's suffering from major pain. It begins to address some of the most urgent, immediate needs. But it doesn't begin to provide a strategy for how the Palestinian economy will work, how Palestinians will be able to make a living.

One of the consequences of the Palestinian Authority's hiring practices is a lot of people are dependent on the government for jobs. When the government suddenly doesn't have any money, that means that a huge portion of the work force says, I can't buy food, I mean, let alone the sort of larger capital expenditures: I can't fix my car. I can't get food. I can't get water.

BRAND: Is their some admission by the quartet by taking this action yesterday that the stick approach hasn't been working out as well as they had hoped?

Mr. ALTERMAN: It's much too early for anybody to assess where the stick approach is going. I think that the stick we've been using, that Hamas needs to accept Israel's legitimacy as a state in the region, is sort of an opening salvo. That's not an opening gambit. That's not something Hamas is going to do.

But there's been a conclusion, certainly on the American side, that there shouldn't be any carrots in this approach, that we shouldn't be trying to transform Hamas, as indeed U.S. policy sought to transform Fatah, the secular opposition to Hamas.

And I don't see that that really has changed, that there's been a decision either on the U.S. side or the European side or on the Israeli side to try to change this organization. It seems to me that still the goal is to isolate them, to make that government collapse.

What I'm not sure of is whether anybody has a clear idea of what might come afterward. And as far as I can tell, nobody really does.

BRAND: Jon Alterman, thank you very much.

Mr. ALTERMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

BRAND: Jon Alterman is the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

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