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“From the American People”: Sketches of the US National Security State in Palestine

[Image by the author.] [Image by the author.]


“While government sights are set on ‘the enemy’, ours might be set on them and on how this rush to the intimate structures new sites of imperial governance.” – Ann Stoler [1]

“We have to squeeze these guys.” – Senior State Department official in the wake of the 2006 Hamas parliamentary victory [2]


In tracing the historical circuits through which techniques of colonial management have been tested and transmitted, Laleh Khalili has underscored Palestine’s centrality in global counterinsurgency.[3] Under the British Mandate (1917-48), Palestine served as a staging ground for the consolidation of British imperial policing and pacification strategies, and following mandate rule, as a testing ground for Israeli experiments in asymmetric warfare and demographic engineering, not barring considerable US diplomatic and material support. Likewise, Darryl Li has explored the ways in which Palestine has served as a “laboratory” within which various techniques of spatial and population management have been experimented in search of “an optimal balance between maximum [Israeli] control over the territory and minimum responsibility for [the] non-Jewish population.”[4] Moreover, as Li notes, just as laboratory experiments are meant to be replicated elsewhere, Palestine has long served as a testing ground of sorts for other modern-day occupations. US military discourse abounds with references to the Israeli experience with “unconventional warfare” in Palestine, what one US military strategist called Israel’s “combat theater” from which the US has much to learn.[5] In its most recent occupation of Iraq, the US adopted various population control measures and biopolitical technologies used by the Israeli military in the occupied territories, including identity cards and biometric data to track population movements and effectively isolate and undermine resistance to the occupying force.[6]

An asymmetric mode of warfare that saw its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s as an imperial response to national liberation struggles and communist movements, and more recently with the modern occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency is often assumed to be kinetic, or related to outright violence and lethal force, while its “non-kinetic” counterparts are often overlooked. At the center of my inquiry here are the ways in which practices of colonial subjugation and management are being mobilized through the less sensational, seemingly mundane spaces and practices of aid governance. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offers one site through which to view this articulation.

The Architecture of US Homeland Security in Palestine

Established under President Kennedy with the signing of the US Foreign Assistance Act in 1961, USAID is arguably an early articulation of the shift towards a “population-centric” approach to counterinsurgency as promoted in the 2006 US Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24; henceforth, “the Manual”). In contrast to the “enemy-centric” approach, which aims to deter civilians from supporting resistance through a series of punitive measures, this model speaks to a wider and more complex engagement that aims to influence attitudes and alliances within the population at large through various non-kinetic means including economic regeneration, basic service provision and alliance-building through local networks. While lethal violence and brutal force remain central tenets of the counterinsurgency doctrine, the Manual, and the population-central approach more broadly, focus public attention on non-kinetic operations and represent counterinsurgency, in the words of David Kilcullen, as a form of “armed social work.”[7]

The establishment of USAID during the height of the Cold War was not disconnected from Kennedy’s conviction that the US fight against communism would be won in part through a portfolio of capitalist economic development and expressions of “soft power” aimed at “winning the hearts and minds” of the population in regions where the US was waging war. Kennedy translated these core ideas into two longstanding institutional formations: the Peace Corps and the US Agency for International Development.

In recent years USAID has become entwined, in intimate ways, with the US-led so-called “global war on terror” (which Barack Obama renamed “overseas contingency operations” in 2009). Today, the agency’s operational framework is shaped by a combination of laws, policies and domestic and foreign pressures that reflect, foremost, dominant discourses and configurations of power in Washington. Included within this relatively complex legal-security apparatus is Executive Order (EO) 13224, which builds upon longer-standing laws that ban US assistance to and contact with US-designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) and individuals, as well as those who “disrupt the Middle East Peace Process.” Issued under President Bush, EO 13224 prohibits material support to and transactions with persons who “commit, threaten to commit or support terrorism” as defined by the US government. Today the US Secretary of State includes some six thousand individuals, groups and entities on its “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” (SDN) list, which until 2008 included Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress.[8] Moreover, this list hosts a disproportionate number of Palestinian groups and individuals, including Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyyah (HAMAS), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), among others.

To ensure compliance with US “no material assistance” legislation, USAID has instituted a number of oversight measures that include anti-terrorism certification (ATC) or “the paper,” as it is colloquially referred to in Palestine. The paper is a seven-page document that prospective USAID grant awardees must sign in order to be eligible for funding. They must confirm with their signature that they do not have connections to nor do they endorse “terrorist” activity as this definition stands in Washington. Their signature also affirms that they will not provide material support to any individual or entity fitting this designation. In effect, US legislation informs how “aid to the Palestinian people” may be used and by whom.

In line with larger trends in liberal governance towards contracting, responsibility for ensuring compliance with this legislation has been shifted onto the NGOs and private firms receiving USAID monies around the world. Today, USAID operates almost exclusively through intermediary bodies, which consist predominately of international and American NGOs and private agencies. Referred to by one municipal worker in Palestine as USAID’s “many arms,” these bodies are held responsible for obtaining anti-terrorism certification from potential USAID grantees and for collecting personal information from aid recipients to be screened through US intelligence systems. This practice called “vetting” entails the collection of personal information of potential aid recipients and partners, including their names and other identification information. This information is submitted to USAID Headquarters and from there screened through US databases. Throughout the course of my research on USAID, NGO staffers repeatedly remarked that there is little transparency around the process. As one person recounted, “You enter the data into the system and then it goes into a black hole. You can’t track and you can’t follow up.”

Even if not desired by the agencies themselves, these intermediary bodies effectively serve as conduits through which information about local aid recipients is channeled to both the US and Israeli governments, including in some cases, details as fine as the coordinates for plots of land upon which USAID-funded greenhouses are to be constructed. As one employee of a contracting agency noted, “We do not install anything until the beneficiary has been identified through an application process, passed both technical and social criteria, is vetted by USAID, approved by a local committee…and is approved by COGAT.” COGAT — Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories — is the body responsible for implementing Israeli state policy in the occupied territories.

For many Palestinians within this intermediary sphere, their positioning as enforcers of US mandates has situated them in awkward, paradoxical ways — essentially having to police the local organizations and beneficiaries with whom they work while also purportedly being their “partners.” One NGO worker in the health and humanitarian sector remarked that the collection of personal data was highly insulting to recipients and vendors alike, and she felt as if she constantly had to negotiate a contradictory identity as both a Palestinian and a “face” for USAID. She states, “Those of us implementing the projects are negotiating bizarre positions. We are constantly apologizing for having to do work on behalf of USAID.” Another staffer in a mental health organization that had previously received US funds recounted a time during the Second Intifada when she could not serve beneficiaries with connections to the aforementioned US-designated FTOs. “They are making us police our beneficiaries,” she said. “We are monitoring our people.” In the many exchanges I had with employees in this intermediary sphere, self-policing was a recurring theme. As the director of one organization remarked, “We simply don’t work with every municipality; some are restricted.” She then proceeded to list a range of municipalities in the West Bank including Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah with whom they were prohibited from having relations. Another employee in a US-funded organization said that they had to be very careful in initiating any contact with Hamas while operating in Gaza, which entailed avoiding contact with the entire public sector. A considerable number of beneficiaries were preemptively eliminated. “Our home office in Washington,” he said, “warned us to be very careful.”

Mobility as “Privilege”

Not overlooked by many Palestinians working within these intermediary agencies is the role that Western intervention has played in the region historically, and the fact that billions of dollars of Western aid, most of it to Israel, has done little to alter the reality of military occupation and indeed much to further entrench it. Especially for the Palestinian generation that has grown up during the Second Intifada, or those currently living in Gaza, the other dimensions of US aid, namely direct military assistance and other forms of material and diplomatic support to Israel, are not lost in memory. Recent events in the diplomatic theater such as the US opposition to the 2011 Palestinian bid for UN membership and the subsequent termination of funds to UNESCO after it voted to admit Palestine as a member state, or the US position on the Gaza blockade, have stood as stark affirmations of positions already known. These critiques notwithstanding, many middle-class Palestinians have charted opportunities for social (and physical) mobility through employment in foreign aid institutions. As one woman working for a USAID intermediary put it, “People who work with them have a life. They have permits to go into the Israeli areas. They have these cards that allow them to pass any checkpoint. Even the drivers have that. That’s a huge thing. […] You are treated like a human with it.” The irony here of course being that in order for Palestinians to earn the “privilege” to move — that which is internationally understood as a basic human right — they must effectively perform and reproduce US geopolitics on a territory where they yet have borders to call their own.

“It’s Not Negotiating. It’s Subjecting, Being Subjected and Accepting.”[9] 

In 2003, following implementation of the US federally mandated anti-terrorism certification, many Palestinian NGOs and civil society groups undertook a collective decision to boycott USAID. This decision was undertaken in large part to protest what was widely seen as the imposition of a US definition and interpretation of “terrorism” on Palestinian local and national politics. As one interviewee contended, “No group actually wants to use the funds to support terrorism. Rather, this is a battle over principle. Who has the power to define?” Indeed, the ATC is but one material manifestation of dominant US understandings of terror and legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence. For many of those living in Palestine, undertaking a decision to sign the ATC directly sanctions these definitions. Given that USAID is among the largest single-country donors to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, US distinctions and determinations of “terrorist” and “non-terrorist,” and the corresponding aid practices that get woven around these distinctions, have profound material implications for those living in this region. Such conditionality has effectively impeded necessary coordination and exacerbated institutional fragmentation among Palestinian institutions and civil society groups already deeply divided by geopolitical realities. The case of the Bethlehem Governorate stands out as but one example.

In 2005, the United States placed a boycott on the Bethlehem Municipality following the results of the Palestinian municipal elections, which yielded a mayor and city council seats to members belonging to groups unfavorable to the US palate. The United States subsequently barred all financial and diplomatic transactions with the Bethlehem Municipality but retained relations with its neighbors, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour. Together, these three municipalities comprise the Bethlehem Governorate, and given their proximity to one another, collectively share seats on the joint water and sewage council. Following the election results, USAID cut funds to all joint bodies of which the Bethlehem Municipality was a member (this is effectively the same strategy exercised in Gaza following the 2006 parliamentary elections) and proceeded to fund Beit Sahour and Beit Jala independently. “Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour are the owners of the water department, together,” the Mayor of Beit Sahour remarked during an interview conducted in 2010. “Now to get something we must go only as Beit Jala or only as Beit Sahour.” While Bethlehem’s neighbors have seen a number of new infrastructure projects and city services in recent years, including upgrading of roads, libraries and youth programs bearing the slogan, “A Gift from the American People to the Palestinian People,” the Bethlehem Municipality has been forced to seek other funding sources to maintain municipal services and repair deteriorating infrastructure. During an interview with Bethlehem’s mayor conducted in 2011, he noted the municipality was waiting for funds from the French to upgrade the water network. “We’ve had these pipes since the 1950s,” he said. “All the roads around Beit Sahour are open for maintenance. It has destroyed all the asphalt.” The case of the Bethlehem Governorate is indicative of broader process of fragmentation occurring across local, regional and national scales in Palestine.

While local groups have adopted different approaches to USAID in Palestine, there remains a general consensus that if a decision to accept USAID funds is undertaken, one must fundamentally operate within a framework that affords little flexibility in terms of negotiating the security priorities set out by Washington and Tel Aviv. There is however no illusion that USAID is exceptional. As one NGO director put, “It’s not sinister if you know the origin. […] Sometimes when we are discussing internally we say look, you know, these people were very clear from the beginning. Nobody came and said that I am here to support the Palestinian resistance and the plight of the Palestinians and their right for self-determination and for an end to the occupation. No one. No one.” There is no illusion regarding consequences for integrating into the “aid game,” as one NGO worker put it. There is not, however, a unified strategy for how to negotiate it.

Conclusion: A Baroque Occupation

What we are seeing, in effect, is a proliferation of sites and diversity of means through which US political and economic power is being articulated. Alongside its military and diplomatic interventions, the United States is simultaneously extending its reach through a host of “development experts,” humanitarian agents and “democracy promoters” charged with filtering, sorting and policing the Palestinian civilian population. While taking a new and perhaps more sophisticated form, these contemporary practices and strategies must not be dissociated from a longer history of counterinsurgency in Palestine. Suppression of the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, Khalili reminds us, ended with a Palestinian nationalist movement that, while fragmented, was not entirely defeated. The repeated failure to destroy nationalist sentiment over time, as she points out, “has been met both by the British and the Israelis [and to which we should add Americans] with a more determined commitment to reproduce — more perfectly — the very techniques that failed.” The desire to perfect these techniques, she suggests, has entailed a “constant refinement and 'reactivation' of the processes, of ever-more technologically sophisticated identification methods, of increasingly expansive methods of mapping and controlling territories in three dimensions, of more elaborate recruitment of collaborators, or more baroque punishments of collectives.”[10]

The aid regime that has taken form in recent decades is part and parcel of the refinement and evolution of techniques that Khalili speaks of. The various practices mapped here — collection of personal information, mapping of coordinates of land plots, development of internal policing and reporting systems, intelligence gathering and the forging of alliances and divisions between various social groups — are all part and parcel of ever-more sophisticated methods of identification, mapping, controlling, dividing and making legible this population that has time and time again refused wholesale defeat. These mundane practices of counterinsurgency, often renamed with technical terminology such as “reporting” or “compliance,” have become part and parcel of the daily practices of aid governance displaced from the US state and shot through a host of development and humanitarian forces working on its behalf. What has resulted in this process is a proliferation of sites through the US national security apparatus is being articulated within Palestine encased in ever-more sophisticated modes of control.

Of course, these processes are not unfolding on a blank slate, and if indeed the ultimate result of counterinsurgency techniques is “the production of the civilian not as collateral but as the central object of war making”[11] then here too is where the struggle to resist such projects is taking shape.


[1] Ann Laura Stoler with David Bond, “Refractions off Empire: Untimely Comparisons in Harsh Times,” Radical History Review 95, 2006, p. 98.

[2] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008.

[3] Laleh Khalili, “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, 2010, pp. 413–33.

[4] Darryl Li, “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement,” Journal of Palestine Studies 35, 2006, pp. 38–39.

[5] Thomas H. Henriksen, “The Israeli Approach to Irregular Warfare and Implications for the United States,” February 2007.

[6] See Derek Gregory, “The Biopolitics of Baghdad: Counterinsurgency and the Counter-City,” Human Geography 1, 2008, pp. 6-27.

[7] See Derek Gregory, “The Rush to the Intimate: Counterinsurgency and the Cultural Turn,” Radical Philosophy 150, 2008, pp. 8-23.

[8] Ma’an, “Matrix of Control,” August 2011.

[9] Statement obtained during an interview in Ramallah conducted in 2010 with a former popular committee member who is now the director of an NGO.

[10] Khalili, “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies” p. 427.

[11] Ibid.

Syrian Population Regression

Population: ~ 17,583,863 (2017 est.)

2011:  5,800+ (killed)

2012:  60,000+ (killed) and 500,000+ (external refugees), 3+ million (internally displaced)

2013:  100,000+ (killed), 2,000,000+ (external refugees), and 8 million+ (internally displaced)

2014: 200,000+ (killed), 3.5+ million (external refugees), 7.6+ million (internally displaced)

2015: 250,000+ (killed), 4.4 million (external refugees), 6.6+ million (internally displaced)

2016: 400,000+ (killed), 4.9+ million (external refugees), 6.3+ million (internally displaced)


Syria Map and Stats

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Population: 17,185,170 (July 2016 est.)
GDP: $24.6 billion (2014 est.); $50.28 billion purchasing power parity (2015 est.)
Unemployment: 50% (2016 est.); Youth Unemployment (ages 15-24): total: 35.8% (male: 26.6%; female: 71.1% [2011 est.])
Internet Users: 5.116 million - 30%/pop. (July 2015 est.)
Exchange Rate: ~ 497.8 Syrian pounds per US dollar (2016 est.)
GDP Growth Rate: -9.9% (2015 est.)
Military Expenditures: 5.9% of GDP (World Rank: 10) (2011 est.)
Health Expenditures: 2.9% of GDP (World Rank: 180) (2011 est.)
Population Growth Rate: 1.56% (2016 est.)
Age Structure: 0-14 years: 31.95% (male 2,815,140/female 2,675,166); 15-24 years: 19.65% (male 1,711,847/female 1,664,814); 25-54 years: 39.03% (male 3,342,264/female 3,364,406); 55-64 years: 5.26% (male 447,205/female 457,525); 65 years and over: 4.11% (male 318,691/female 388,112) (2016 est.)
Literacy: 86.4% (male: 91.7%; female: 81% [2015 est.])
Religious Demographics: Sunni Muslim 74%; other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%; Christian (various denominations) 10%
Ethnic Demographics: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%