More than $1.3 million in U.S Agency for International Development (AID) funds earmarked for community self-help projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been blocked for two years by the Israeli government, according to the director of the American voluntary agency responsible for implementing the programs.
Community development programs in the occupied territories have long been a sensitive issue for the Israelis because of a perception that they can strengthen the economic independence of the Palestinians and bolster their resolve to oppose continued occupation.
In all, eight projects submitted in draft form in December 1978 to the Israeli military government and the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare remain unapproved, Henry Selz, Mideast representative of American Near East Refugee Aid, a voluntary agency, said.
Selz said he has been under pressure by U.S. AID, the State Department and the congressional committees that appropriated the funds to explain why the community projects are not under way, but that the Israeli government continues to tie up the plans without adequate explanations.
The projects, ranging from a rural electrification project in Nablus to an agricultural marketing cooperative near Hebron, are, in Selz's view, "non-political and in everybody's self-interest."
While the Israeli government has approved six project proposals, for a total of $625,000 in disbursed funds, Selz's agency has been unable to carry out its mandate from AID because of obstructions placed in the way of remaining projects, Selz said.
In a letter to U.S. Consul-General Brandon Grove Jr., Selz complained not only of Israeli government interference in his programs, but in other U.S. voluntary agencies as well. He warned that the voluntary agencies are threatened by an "unmistakably adverse trend."
Moreover, officials of other U.S. voluntary agencies that operate in the West Bank complained that they have been harassed and pressured by the Israelis, apparently because of suspicions that they are helping Palestinian resistance to the Israeli military government.
Paul Quiring, director of the Mennonite Central Committee's development programs here, is leaving because, he said, the Israeli authorities refused to grant him a visa.
The Mennonite committee, which has functioned in the West Bank since 1950, administers a $170,000 agricultural development program, as well as self-help needlepoint programs for Palestinian refugee women.
Quiring said Israeli officials in the Social Welfare Ministry told him they had a "thick file" on his allegedly anti-Israeli activities, including his testimony in 1977 before a U.S. House committee studying West Bank settlements and a speech he made in London about settlements in 1978, which was reprinted in Jordanian newspapers.
"They said I was viewed as unfriendly to Israeli, and that I was here for other than humanitarian reasons. To most people, giving water to somebody is humanitarian. But if you give water to somebody in the Jordan Valley, apparently it is political," Quiring said.
Another agency that complained of pressure by the government is the American Friends (Quakers) Service Committee, which last year was barred from providing counsel, among other activities, to Arab landowners who appealed to Israel's Supreme Court against the military government's expropriation of property for Jewish civilian settlements.
The Quakers and the Israelis contended that they were duplicating government services.
Mordechai Avitsour, deputy director general of the Social Welfare Ministry and the man responsible for Israeli relations with the American voluntary agencies, repeatedly has denied that political considerations are involved.
Avitsour has sought to minimize the friction between the government and the agencies, saying, "We are working together for the people." But, he notes, "occasional" problems with the agencies' proposals delay the projects.
But the American agency officials say that beyond Avitsour is the military government, whose officials often are suspicious that the self-help groups are blatantly pro-Arab.