Managing Conflict: An Ethnography of the U.S. National Security State in Palestine

Managing Conflict: An Ethnography of the U.S. National Security State in Palestine

Additional Investigators
Lisa Bhungalia

Principal Investigator: Lisa Bhungalia, Department of Geography

In the West Bank and Gaza, it’s known as “the paper” – a seven-page certification that Palestinian agencies must sign to receive assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Signing the document confirms they do not have connections to or endorse terrorist activity.

Rather than sign, Palestinian nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups staged a boycott of the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2003. The reason? On the list of designated terrorists was a disproportionate number of Palestinian groups and individuals, including Hamas. While the agencies did not want to use U.S. aid to help terrorists, they also didn’t think what is and is not terrorism should be defined solely by the United States.

Controversy over the anti-terrorism certification is one example of the role that organizations usually considered civilian or humanitarian can play in the U.S. global war on terror. In this project, Lisa Bhungalia sets out to study the relationship between U.S. national security policy and foreign aid governance through the operation of USAID in Gaza and the West Bank.

USAID operates one of the largest aid programs in the occupied Palestinian territories, and as such exercises considerable influence over how aid is distributed across the region. Its framework is influenced mainly by the U.S.-Israel security relationship. Israel receives $3 billion a year in U.S. assistance, or $118 billion since World War II. This shapes American policy to the Palestinians, most importantly through the adoption of an Israeli perspective on the conflict.

Globally and in the occupied territories, USAID now operates largely by awarding grants to NGOs, civil society groups, and private firms. These intermediary bodies are responsible for collecting information from potential aid recipients for screening in U.S. databases, and for getting clients to sign anti-terrorism certifications. Through such mechanisms, even humanitarian aid agencies can act as part of U.S. national security apparatus.

Bhungalia had already conducted 13 months of ethnographic research in Palestine in 2010-12. A grant from the Mershon Center allowed her to return to for a final phase of data collection to integrate the perspectives of multiple players. She conducted interviews with officials at the USAID offices in Tel Aviv, private firms and contracting agencies, international and U.S. nongovernmental organizations, Palestinian NGOs and charities, local beneficiaries, the local Palestinian Authority, and academics, researchers, and activists. She also conducted participant observations at the Dalia Foundation and Center for Development Studies at Birzeit University.

Bhungalia presented her findings at the Critical Conference in Geography and will incorporate them into her forthcoming book, “From the American People”: Aid, Counterinsurgency, and the U.S. National Security State in Palestine, which has garnered interest from University of Minnesota Press.

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