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U.S. Funds Enter Fray In Palestinian Elections

A Palestinian police officer walks past ballot boxes at a Palestinian Election Commission warehouse in the West Bank.
A Palestinian police officer walks past ballot boxes at a Palestinian Election Commission warehouse in the West Bank. (Kevin Frayer - AP)

"We weren't trying to be some black-box SWAT operation," said the official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the record. "But we want to be able to say we did everything we could to support peaceful coexistence here. There's no tomorrow if we end up with a worsening conflict" after the elections.

Hamas is reaping the benefits of years of grass-roots social work and political organizing in the West Bank and Gaza as it prepares for its first national election. It opposes Israel's right to exist and has vowed to maintain its armed wing, which has carried out attacks and suicide bombings inside Israel and the territories.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is suffering from a reputation for corruption, divisions within Fatah and a continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank that has made Abbas's pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement unappealing to many Palestinians. Public opinion polls have shown the race tightening in recent weeks, with Hamas now running even with Fatah.

According to interviews with U.S. and Palestinian officials here and in Washington as well as project documents obtained by The Washington Post, the plan to help promote the Palestinian Authority, and by extension Fatah, began emerging as Israel ended its 38-year occupation of Gaza in August.

"In light of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, a critical window of opportunity has emerged," stated an October document outlining the scope of the Gaza Action Plan Support Unit, as the program is known. The document, prepared by ARD, a consulting firm based in Burlington, Vt., that was hired to manage the project, said the goal was to "help lay the foundation for successful, moderate leadership in Gaza as well as the West Bank." It listed the Palestinian Authority as its "direct beneficiary."

Most U.S. development assistance here, which last year totaled roughly $400 million, consists of water pipelines, sewage treatment plants, public libraries and roads, which bear the USAID logo alongside the seal of the Palestinian Authority. But Bever said the agency, which previously wanted to showcase U.S. aid, recently decided to emphasize the Palestinian Authority's role to a greater degree after polls showed a majority of Palestinians are aware of the overall extent of U.S. assistance.

Downplaying U.S. Credit

The project is supervised by USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which specializes in promoting U.S. interests during times of political change in foreign countries and has the ability to spend money faster than other departments, according to agency officials.

The office hired ARD, which in turn subcontracted the project to a Washington-based firm, Strategic Assessments Initiative, or SAI, known for its largely academic work on issues such as Palestinian security reform. SAI had no experience in development work and had never worked for USAID.

Amjad Atallah, the company's president, said he was not authorized to talk about the project, though he said it raised concerns within his organization. Atallah said he agreed to work on the contract only after USAID agreed to his requests that Palestinian teams work in the field and that the program be coordinated through the office of President Abbas, who is not a candidate in the election.

USAID also brought in an independent consultant, Larry Sampler, to "help us think about how to do this," the U.S. official involved in the program said. Sampler was described by people who know him as an earnest, intense man who served 15 years in the Army Special Forces and worked as a U.S. contractor in Afghanistan.

According to documents from a planning presentation Sampler gave to U.S. officials in Washington and Tel Aviv in October, he raised several questions about how closely the U.S. government should be identified with the project. The documents also suggest that U.S. officials expected the project to become involved in party politics.

"To whom should credit accrue?" Sampler asked in one slide of the presentation. "Issues of branding and how closely associated candidates and parties want to be or should be associated with the USG [U.S. government]. What should be the nature of that relationship?"

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