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USAID Palestinian funds frozen

Groups won't sign antiterrorism pact

TEL AVIV -- Numerous Palestinian nongovernmental organizations are refusing to sign an agreement with the US government committing themselves not to provide resources to individuals or groups identified as terrorists by the US State Department.

As a result, $5 million earmarked for the organizations by the US Agency for International Development has been frozen since the dispute arose in recent weeks, US officials say, and about $20 million that the United States grants to the organizations annually for a range of health, education, and community services is at risk.

Palestinian organizations assert that the US requirement is political and pro-Israel in nature, and they say that they are forbidden to sign the commitment because of a stipulation in Palestinian law that foreign assistance may only be accepted if there are no strings attached.

"This demand has become the personification of the US policy of regarding the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence as a form of terrorism," said Dr. Rabah Muhanna, chairman of the Union of Health Work Committees in Gaza. "USAID wants to control our NGOs and civil society after it has controlled completely the political Arab system."

In addition to his nongovernmental organization work, Muhanna is a member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group devoted to the destruction of Israel. Israelis tracking the issue say the Palestinians' refusal to commit themselves to avoid working with the listed groups demonstrates that they condone suicide bombings and other deliberate killing of noncombatants as legitimate tactics in the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The antiterrorism agreement is part of a broad US government effort to choke off funds and other support for terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. USAID grant applicants around the world are being asked to sign it.

The agreement states that as a condition for receiving a USAID grant, the recipient organization "certifies that it has not provided and will not provide material support or resources to any individual or entity" that it knows is sponsoring, planning, or engaging in terrorist activity. All the leading Palestinian groups that dispatch suicide bombers and launch attacks on civilians -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- are identified as terror organizations by the State Department, as are other Middle Eastern extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Al Jihad.

The impasse over the antiterrorism statement "is very frustrating to us because we have invested so much time and effort developing good relations with the Palestinian NGO community," said Larry Garber, director of USAID activities in the occupied territories. "It would be a shame to see it all fall apart over this."

A USAID directive requiring the new certification was issued Dec. 31 in Washington. Grant recipients and contractors in the Middle East were informed of the new requirement in April, and the dispute emerged in talks between US officials and Palestinian nongovernmental organization representatives in late June, according to US government sources.

US participants in the meetings tried to persuade nongovernmental organization representatives that the antiterrorism statement was not very different from the commitments to nondiscrimination in employment and to a drug-free workplace that recipients sign routinely.

They pointed out that the requirement was being made of grantees worldwide, not just of Palestinians, and argued that the new requirement was not a major change from current policy, as any nongovernmental organization found to be supporting terrorists would have its US funding cut even if there were no antiterrorism certification in place.

Nongovernmental organizations in other parts of the Middle East have not refused to sign.

"Some responsible Palestinian NGOs have the sincere view that this is not as innocuous as we are suggesting it is," said a participant in the discussions. "They see an effort to force Palestinian organizations to distinguish between the good and the bad, with the United States as the arbitrator."

Initially, according to an American taking part in the discussions, many of the leading Palestinian health organizations agreed to sign the certification, but backed out when other nongovernmental organizations, involved in government and civic issues, objected. Refusal to sign the certification now is near total, and, according to an article in the Palestinian newspaper Alhayat Aljadeeda, at least one leading association of nongovernmental organizations is planning to discipline any members who break ranks.

USAID believes the reasons for this are "purely political," Garber said. "Some organizations are nervous about being branded as US puppets." The impasse, and the resulting freezing of funds, is especially troubling to apolitical nongovernmental organizations that had projects about to be funded when the new requirement was spelled out.

Abdel Karim Ashour, director of the nongovernmental organization Agricultural Relief Committees, said USAID agreed to grant $500,000 to a land rehabilitation project in the Neit Hanoun area of Gaza, where Israel ripped up expanses of orchards from which Hamas members were firing rockets into Israel. Then the Americans asked the committees to make the antiterrorism commitment.

"We refused to sign it. The project was canceled," Ashour said. "This is a new pattern. I think we should have a deep discussion about it and make a united position. . . . The [Palestinian Authority] has refused to give us an answer, whether we should sign it or not."

Abdel Rahman al Tamimi, director of a Palestinian hydrologists group, is concerned because, he said, "USAID is the largest aid provider for the Palestinians. We are talking about $30 million in aid every year for the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and municipalities. We should find a legal solution," he said. He added that USAID has been willing to discuss ways the agreement could be made palatable, but that Palestinians are divided on the matter.

"Those who do not receive any aid strongly reject any signing" by other groups that do receive aid, he said. "Others receive aid but do not want to sign. Then there are those who receive aid, say they are against signing, but who sign secretly."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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