The British government is to more than double its aid to infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza as well as help “unblock” £220 million in Palestinian taxes currently being withheld by Israel.
In a move announced by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt on Friday, the UK is to spend £38 million on Palestinian projects such as desalination plants and solar panels in 2018-23, up from £16 million from 2013-18.
Only four percent of water in Gaza is safe to drink, residents have just five hours of electricity per day, wages in the Strip are lower than they were 20 years ago, and almost half the population is jobless, so urgent action was needed, said Burt.
“A thriving Palestinian economy is crucial to achieving peace with Israel but wages in Gaza are now lower than two decades ago and Palestinians could slide even deeper into poverty without urgent action,” he said.
The British money will help build a desalination plant to increase access to clean piped water and help replenish the Gaza aquifer. It will also help fund the purchase of solar panels for homes and schools.
Another priority of the aid programme will be “connecting Palestinian IT firms and UK businesses to create jobs for Palestinians,” funding experts to help unblock the taxes withheld by Israel, and helping Palestinians increase its exports.
Limited water supplies have limited the growth of the Palestinian agricultural sector, in turn limiting jobs and raising the cost of food, despite falling wages.
Supporting the economy in Gaza and the West Bank “will help create desperately needed jobs, boost exports and collect taxes so that the Palestinian Authority can invest properly in vital services such as education and healthcare,” Burt added. “Our work will also help to create reliable electricity and clean water supplies.”
Israel currently blocks the transfer of £220 million in customs revenues and taxes to the Palestinian Authority, and this month passed a law to freeze £99 million in taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority, saying it represents the amount Palestinian officials pay terrorists and their families.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said this amounted to “piracy and theft” but the UK said it would help the Palestinian Authority “work with Israel to unlock £220m worth of annual taxes and revenues,” adding that it would also help the Palestinians “take control of the collection of its own customs revenue”.
Israel has estimated that Gaza needs $1 billion to alleviate its humanitarian crisis, so the UK contribution will only begin to address the funding shortfall, and Burt recognised that both sides needed to do more to help.
“Hamas and other terrorist groups must cease all violent and provocative actions and Israel must reverse its restrictive measures and work with the international community to ease the difficult conditions in Gaza.”