It would benefit both Israel and Palestine if people could donate to a non-profit programme that made direct, unconditional cash payments to impoverished Palestinians living in the Palestinian territories. The direct cash payment model is based on the insight that, as the non-profit GiveDirectly puts it, “cash allows individuals to invest in what they need, instead of relying on aid organizations and donors thousands of miles away to choose for them.” And direct payment programmes are typically among the most efficient non-profits: about 94 cents per dollar donated reaches recipients.
If individuals and groups were able to donate to a non-profit providing direct cash payments to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, it would fill a notable gap in the currently available aid and meet a documented practical need: according to the United Nations, a third of the Palestinian population—and over half the residents of Gaza—are unemployed, living below the poverty line and facing food insecurity.
There is reason to be confident that such cash payments would work as intended. For example, the US Census Bureau found that the 2020 stimulus checks helped about 11.7 million Americans escape poverty—leading to the lowest poverty rate since 2009 (and that was during a pandemic). Moreover, studies published by Social Problems, the Roosevelt Institute and the National Bureau of Economic Resarch have provided empirical support for the common-sense intuition that unconditional cash transfer programmes tend to reduce stress, decrease criminality and lead to better education outcomes—particularly among disadvantaged youths.
The technology for such a programme is likely to be feasible and cost-effective. Many programmes around the world distribute direct cash payments via text messages to mobile phones, and 96% of Palestinian households have access to a mobile phone. These programmes typically automatically select eligible beneficiaries using algorithms based on phone data and send texts using emergency broadcast frequencies. Once someone receives notice that he or she is eligible for a cash transfer, the transfer can be done using a pre-paid debit card, a local money transfer company (Moneygram and Western Union are available in Palestine) or a physical cheque mailed to the individual concerned. Imagine this: Israel’s current emergency text-messaging system, which warns Palestinian citizens that their home is about to be bombed, could be redeployed to alleviate extreme poverty!
Such a programme would benefit Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by helping them rebuild their homes and their lives after a bombing, and would benefit the Israeli government because, in allowing the programme to use their emergency-broadcast system, they would demonstrate that they support the programme, and thus that their enemy is those who engage militarily with Israel, not the civilian population.
I hit upon this idea in May 2021, when the Israeli military bombed the Gaza Strip in retaliation for rocket fire that Palestinian militants had recently launched into Israel. As an American, I felt a moral obligation to do something to interrupt the cycle of violence, because the United States gives Israel almost four billion dollars annually in (mostly military) assistance. (By way of comparison, the Trump administration cut off almost all aid to the Palestinian Authority, while the Biden administration has committed to providing 235 million dollars in humanitarian, economic and development assistance.) Regardless of one’s opinion about the amount of aid the US provides, or about whether the bombings were necessary for Israel’s self-defence, Palestinian civilians were undeniably deeply impacted by the bombing last May. According to the Associated Press, it killed about 230 Palestinians and forced about 60,000 of them to abandon their homes.
There are many Palestine-focused non-profits, but most work towards distant goals such as lobbying for a two-state solution. A few organizations provide direct assistance including a handful that help rebuild, but most direct assistance tends to come in the form of legal or medical services rather than help with the reconstruction of housing and infrastructure. A few GoFundMe-style options promise to help particular Palestinian individuals who have been impacted by the bombing, but it is difficult to vet such individual claims, and those who are able to set up and promote their own GoFundMe webpages are unlikely to be among the neediest. And although the US, Israel, other countries, and intergovernmental organisations such as the European Union and United Nations provide significant amounts of aid through the Palestinian Authority, this aid is often diluted by mismanagement and corruption—and the amount of aid can fluctuate dramatically in response to the shifting political goals of the leaders of donor countries, who may withhold funds in order to show disapproval of Palestinian Authority actions. For example, the European Union—the Palestinian Authority’s largest donor—recently held back aid over antisemitic content in Palestinian textbooks.
It seems clearly worth pursuing any option that can increase the standard of living inside the West Bank and Gaza, particularly since a two-state solution seems unlikely to materialise anytime soon. Indeed, as Joel Braunold, the managing director of the Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, recently told the New York Times, small economic initiatives tend to build the trust that is needed for larger changes down the line.
One potential obstacle to providing direct cash payments to individuals is that Israel would need to cooperate. Donations would have difficulty reaching impoverished Palestinians at scale without Israel’s support given its influence in the region. However, there is reason to believe that Israel would cooperate. For example, in a speech shortly after taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for “the reduction of friction and the shrinking of the conflict.” He has indicated that, in order to improve the lives of Palestinians in the territories, he is willing to loosen economic restrictions, lend money to the Palestinian Authority, improve mobile phone infrastructure and permit new economic development projects.
One concern about a direct cash payment programme is that some donor money might go to combatants affiliated with Hamas. This risk could be minimised by excluding potential recipients whose names appear on international sanctions lists, such as those maintained by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Moreover, civilians should not be held responsible—or deprived of aid—because of the actions of militants in their communities. Some have suggested that many civilian Palestinians effectively support Hamas violence by voting Hamas members into office. However, many Palestinians did not vote for Hamas. In the 2006 Palestinian legislative election (the most recent one held), only 45% of Palestinians voted for Hamas. Since then, Palestinians have not been able to vote in a parliamentary election at all. Furthermore, a recent survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center showed that only 11% of Palestinians trust the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah party leader Mahmoud Abbas and only 6% trust his main rival—Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh. In a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, about three-quarters of the population said that Abbas should resign. This distrust has been exacerbated by Abbas’ lengthy delay in conducting new elections and by the recent death in Palestinian Authority custody of the anti-government activist Nizar Banat. In addition, support of Hamas does not necessarily indicate support for militant violence. The Palestinian Center’s survey revealed that “combatting corruption” was among Palestinian voters’ top three priorities, and Hamas was perceived as the party most capable of accomplishing this. Even prominent supporters of Israel’s policies agree that Palestinian voters currently have only bad voting choices. For example, American lawyer Alan Dershowitz, a self-described Zionist, has agreed that Hamas’ electoral successes are not endorsements of violence so much as protests against the perceived kleptocracy, corruption and incompetence of Fatah and Abbas. Indeed, one advantage of unconditional direct cash payments to impoverished individuals is that the money need not flow through institutions that might divert it to people for whom it is not intended.
The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides wrote that the noblest donors are those who “give charity to the poor without knowing to whom [they] gave and without the poor person knowing from whom he received.” According to Maimonides, there was once a secluded chamber in the Temple of Jerusalem where donors could leave money for those in need, without either learning the other’s identity. Permitting anonymous individual cash transfers would be a modern-day embodiment of this ideal. It should be tried in Palestine.