Issue 28 - Article 7

Humanitarian response in the occupied Palestinian territory: a donor perspective

November 18, 2004
Charlotte Dunn, Department for International Development (DFID), Jerusalem

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest-running conflicts. It is characterised by political instability, violence, intense international attention and media scrutiny and unprecedented amounts of aid. The occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) has become exceptionally aid dependent, receiving around $1 billion a year, or on average $315 per capita. But despite this, conflict and occupation, particularly in the last few years, have severely constrained Palestinian development, to the point where some social indicators in the OPT are comparable to parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, there is widespread agreement amongst assistance providers that, in the current conditions of conflict, conventional aid alone will not solve the problem of Palestinian development. Only a political settlement can do this. But with no such settlement near, and with increasing humanitarian needs on the ground, the aid community faces a number of complex and challenging dilemmas. Does the continuation of aid prolong the conflict? How can aid be sustainable if there is no long-term perspective? How can agencies maintain a development outlook if needs are primarily humanitarian?

This article looks at how one donor – the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) – has responded to the particular challenge of maintaining a development perspective, while at the same time providing an appropriate and timely response to the humanitarian crisis in the OPT.

DFID’s work in the OPT

DFID established a field presence in the OPT in 1994, shortly after the Oslo peace accords were signed. The Oslo agreement provided the political and developmental framework for the transition to Palestinian statehood, which was expected to last five years. Like other donors, DFID’s programme was based on the key assumption that stability and socio-economic development would follow a negotiated peace agreement, which in turn would lead to the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state. To this end, DFID’s assistance focused on strengthening institutions, rather than developing infrastructure. Activities included support for the Middle East peace process; capacity-building for the nascent Palestinian Authority (PA); and improvements to the delivery of basic public services (namely water, health and education). Technical assistance was provided to the PA, in addition to financial support to civil society organisations and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is continuing to support the refugee population. Since 1994, DFID’s bilateral aid programme to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has grown from £3 million to £20m a year.

Donor response to the Intifada

Following the start of the second Palestinian uprising (Al-Aqsa Intifada) in September 2000, Israel imposed increasingly severe restrictions on Palestinian movement. As a result, economic activity in the OPT ground to a halt, and many Palestinians lost access to their livelihoods and basic social services. These restrictions also made it difficult for donors and aid agencies to operate.

As humanitarian needs grew, donors began to shift the focus of their programmes from development and institution-building to emergency support. Humanitarian needs increased so rapidly that, in less than two years, the ratio of development to emergency assistance had moved from 7:1 in 2000 to 1:5 in 2002. Changes at both the political and the operational level, including the stagnation of the Oslo framework, the emergence of an operating environment inimical to development and the increased need for humanitarian relief, meant that, in principle and in practice, the rationale for development was becoming increasingly untenable.

DFID’s response to the Intifada

For a development agency like DFID, the logical response to these changing circumstances might have been to withdraw. However, DFID chose to continue because it believed that aid still had an important role to play in support of the overall peace effort by maintaining the institutions and conditions required for peace. DFID initially responded by adding an emergency component to its existing programme to cover new and urgent needs arising from the Intifada. It increased funding for UNRWA Emergency Appeals, and expanded its assistance to the non-refugee population through local NGO partners. Activities included the provision of emergency mental health services and trauma counselling for children in Gaza, and mobile health clinics in the West Bank for people who could no longer reach healthcare facilities.

DFID maintained its development perspective by adopting a ‘twin-track’ approach, covering immediate needs while maintaining medium-term development efforts in anticipation of peace. Following publication of the Roadmap in early 2003, setting out specific steps towards a final settlement based on the Oslo agreements, DFID assisted the PA’s ‘Quick Impact Intervention Programme’ (QIIP), which aimed at building public confidence in the peace process by responding to people’s urgent needs. Although this had an immediate impact, the rationale was strategic, because without the PA, the potential for political progress would diminish even further. DFID continues to support the PA through direct emergency budget support, and a three-year technical assistance programme for public administration and civil service reform. This has sustained the PA’s ability to deliver services and pay salaries, which has had an immediate and positive impact on people’s livelihoods. But it has also helped the PA to build its capacity as an efficient and accountable governing institution.

DFID’s Country Assistance Plan for Palestinians

In May 2004, DFID published its Country Assistance Plan for Palestinians (CAP). This represents an honest effort to make sense of the complexities of the ‘post-Intifada’ working environment, and to begin to address some of the challenges and dilemmas in a more systematic way. Few other donors have attempted this kind of process since the start of the Intifada.

DFID’s key assumption remains that the only viable prospect for stability, development and sustainable poverty reduction in the OPT is a negotiated peace settlement supported by both Israelis and Palestinians. What has changed, however, is the emphasis. DFID has refocused its programme towards supporting the PA on technical issues related to governance, as the basis for bringing about conditions conducive to peacebuilding and the more effective delivery of humanitarian assistance. For example, DFID has re-established a programme of long-term support to the Palestinian civil and public order police, which will help address some of the problems of legitimacy and capacity that the police face. This is crucial, not just in terms of law and order and public confidence, but also to help the PA to meet its security obligations under the Roadmap.

The experience of the last few years has shown that this type of support is less likely to be directly affected by the daily ebbs and flows of the conflict and the volatile humanitarian situation. Indeed, the need to inject a sense of stability and realism into programming is as important today as it was at the outset of the Intifada.


In its work in the OPT, DFID has maintained a development perspective, whilst at the same time providing an appropriate and timely response to the humanitarian crisis there. By responding to events with a ‘twin-track’ approach, DFID has retained the flexibility to respond to the volatile political, social and economic environment, while at the same time employing a range of technical and financial instruments to support the PA and other partners in ensuring that both short- and longer-term needs are provided for.

Like DFID, it is clear that the majority of donors are willing and able to continue operating under these unstable conditions. They will stay because, without emergency assistance, substantially more Palestinians would be living in subsistence poverty. But they will also continue to mobilise funds for development and institution-building because without an effective governing structure, the prospects for peace, and ultimately poverty reduction, will be severely undermined.

Without development assistance and a long-term perspective, emergency aid will at best only mitigate the effects of the humanitarian crisis until the prospects for the creation of a viable Palestinian state improve. A political process that results in the ending of Israel’s closure policy would have an immediate and positive impact on individual Palestinian livelihoods, and on the prospects for sustained macro-economic recovery. The humanitarian and development challenge for Palestinians is thus intimately linked with progress in the peace process, and ultimately the resolution of the conflict with Israel. But even in the absence of real political advance, and despite the volatility of the situation, sustainable development is both possible and necessary.

Charlotte Dunnhas worked with DFID in the OPT since 2003 as a consultant on governance, conflict and humanitarian issues. She has also worked with Oxfam GB and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Her email address is:

References and further reading

DFID, Country Assistance Plan for Palestinians, May 2004,

UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee, Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Second Report of Session 2003–04, Volume 1 (HC 230), 5 February 2004,

House of Commons International Development Select Committee, Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report Development Assistance and the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Third Special Report of the Session 2003–04 (HC 487), 5 February 2004,

Twenty Seven Months – Intifada, Closures and Palestinian Economic Crisis: An Assessment, World Bank, May 2003.
Nutritional Assessment and Sentinel Surveillance System for West Bank and Gaza, Johns Hopkins University/Al Quds University, 5 August 2002.

Performance Based Road Map to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 30 April 2003,

Disengagement, the Palestinian Economy and the Settlements, World Bank, 23 June 2004.


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