When they receive one of the colorful plastic cards from Catholic Relief Services, and examine it closely, the poorest people in Gaza see four words in the top left corner: “From the American people.” The phrase appears in Arabic, under the logo of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), so that Palestinian families mired in Gaza’s dreary poverty know who provides the $70 loaded monthly to the card for food.
That should be a point of pride for all Americans. Though many of us, when asked, greatly overstate how much the United States gives in foreign aid, we have been a generous country for decades, sending billions to people facing dire hardship around the world. The USAID logo appears on everything from voucher cards to sacks of rice; it ensures that American benevolence is recognized.
In Gaza, however, that is no longer the case. The monthly food vouchers are gone. So are CRS plans to seed a few dozen small businesses. So are plans to place up to 20,000 Palestinians in temporary jobs that are desperately needed. Official estimates put the unemployment rate in the enclave between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea at 40 percent. But Bassam Nasser, the manager of operations for CRS in Gaza, thinks the rate could be as high as 70 percent.
I met Nasser in Baltimore, where he was visiting the CRS global headquarters and attending the relief organization’s 75th anniversary celebration. Back at his post in Gaza there is little to celebrate. He had to cut his staff of 50 in half, and CRS efforts have been severely curtailed. “We designed and implemented a successful program,” Nasser told me. “We were complimented on it. We did not think we would be stopped.”
There are two reasons it stopped: Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, with its retreat on foreign aid, and his son-in-law’s still-unseen peace proposal for the Palestinians and Israelis.
The millionaire Jared Kushner apparently thinks the way to peace in the region is to make life harder for Palestinians. He is the White House adviser on the Middle East and, according to news reports, the person who pushed the Trump administration to cut all funding to Palestinian civilians. So, in August, the State Department reported that more than $200 million in U.S. humanitarian aid, originally earmarked for Gaza and the West Bank, would be redirected to programs elsewhere. Close to 70 percent of CRS funding for its work in Gaza — about $50 million in grants over five years — came from the U.S.
To hear Bassam Nasser describe the effect of this cut — the end of modest efforts to make life a little better for a few thousand Palestinians out of the 2 million who live in Gaza — is to feel ashamed as an American.
The monthly food vouchers might be the worst of it. Nasser and CRS developed the electronic system and hoped to issue 10,000 cards to feed families, many of them female-headed households.
“We were actually planning to double the number because the economic and social crisis in Gaza has been increasing,” Nasser said. “We were hoping to reach 20,000. Now we are going to go down to 400 families, and only from January to June. That will be the last group that will benefit from this program, using U.S. money.”
The CRS staff in Gaza established a website for online job applications, with the hope of matching 10,000 workers with nonprofits or with farmers who needed seasonal help. “We had 157,000 applications, in Gaza, where people get electricity for an average of four hours a day,” Nasser said. “We were able to place 2,000 in jobs, mostly in nonprofit organizations.” When funds stopped coming from USAID, that program was curtailed, too.
In its entrepreneurship program, CRS made $900 grants, issued in three installments, to help nearly 170 people start small businesses — a hair salon, for instance, and a chicken farm. The program funded seamstresses, and women who made maftool, the Palestinian version of couscous, and pastries. The U.S. funding for that effort will end.
“Somebody doesn’t understand the mandate of our program,” Nasser said, noting that CRS stays out of thorny Palestinian-Israeli politics. “We help vulnerable people, poor people in Gaza. I have no idea how helping vulnerable and needy families is not helping peace.”
Nasser will return to Gaza. He was born there. His family is there. “We will not give up our mandate,” he says. “We will stay there, to get the aid into Gaza. We can’t do so much. We really needed that grant. We were looking at the big difference that grant was going to make in the lives of people.”