By Sam Bahour
Nearly two decades ago, I had a dream. I thought the historic tragedy that befell the Palestinian people was about to end. As such, I refused to be an observer to the historic events that were unfolding; instead, I chose to employ my U.S. education and work experience to contribute to building a new reality on the ground — to build an economy that could serve the new and emerging state of Palestine.
My dream has become a nightmare, one that is being sustained, and financially underwritten, by many people around the world who should know better.
Soon after the Palestinians and Israelis signed their first-ever agreement, the Oslo Accords, in 1993, I relocated with my family from the comfort zone of Youngstown, Ohio, my hometown, to the birthplace of my father in Al-Bireh, a Palestinian city 10 miles north of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.
Before departing to the Holy Land, I read the Oslo Accords carefully, very carefully. I walked into the Middle East’s powder keg knowing very well that the five-year "interim" agreement that the parties had signed on the White House lawn did not end Israel’s prolonged military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. However, the agreement did open new opportunities, economic and otherwise. Yet even those still required Israeli unilateral decision making to make them real.
Over the years, not only has Israel prohibited the emergence of a new Palestinian economy — it structurally and systematically has made certain that even the buds of such a productive economy would never see the light of day. Anyone who scratches the surface of all the political spin can see for themselves what the World Bank reported and now continues to repeat: that Israel’s "apparatus of control" has "become more sophisticated and effective in its ability to interfere in and affect every aspect of Palestinian life, including job opportunities, work, and earnings…[turning] the West Bank into a fragmented set of social and economic islands or enclaves cut off from one another." The International Monetary Fund and the European Union are speaking in the same vein. And embargoed Gaza is in far worse shape than the West Bank.
Given that so many respected international organizations and analysts see reality for what it is, the question is what is being done about it.
Earlier this month, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) held its 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The gathering received international news coverage due to one of the topics on the agenda: the recommendation that the church divest from three U.S. firms (Caterpillar, Inc., Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard). These firms were singled out because of their direct involvement and profiteering from Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinians.
Although the Presbyterian commissioners narrowly decided not to divest, 333 to 331, with two abstentions, the church’s General Assembly did vote to encourage "positive investment" in the occupied Palestinian territory. Many who understand the dire state of affairs in Palestine may be disappointed that the divestment recommendation did not pass. I view the debate differently. The educational value of having this significant church engage on the issue was invaluable. I have no doubt that in the near future, a vote to divest from these three firms, and maybe others benefiting from this prolonged occupation, will be forthcoming.
What troubles me is that during the debate, the Israel lobby’s tactic of "positive investment" was heavily pushed. Through extreme pressure on the church’s General Assembly commissioners, a case was successfully made to "invest in Palestine" rather than to divest from American companies profiting from the violent Israeli military occupation of Palestinians. Those pushing "positive investment" and those voting for it seem unaware that for six years the Presbyterians have backed investment. The reality is that they have not been able to find safe investments since they’re jeopardized by heavy-handed Israeli enforcement of the occupation which severely threatens profit-making.
As a Palestinian-American businessman, I can confidently proclaim that any serious investment in Palestine will need a parallel effort to hold Israel accountable if "positive investment" is to have any chance of success.
I do not belittle "positive investment." On the contrary, my staff and I work unstintingly to create and support businesses in Palestine. However, I’ve been here long enough to understand that Israel will not let us build a real economy, so every job we create is really a means to nonviolently resist this occupation and give hope to a Palestinian family in order for that family to remain in Palestine and not emigrate. A Palestinian with no other options will try to build something here, but an outside businessperson with other options is going to look at the risks and give very serious consideration to investing elsewhere.
Investment is threatened as the Israeli military, directed by the Israeli government, micro-manages every aspect of the Palestinian economy. That micro-management applies to the telecommunications sector as much as it applies to newly-created private equity funds. The extremely polished bluff of establishing "economic peace" is simply unrealistic for people living under military occupation. It’s also impossible.
Some argue that well-intentioned Presbyterians — and others — should invest in Palestine instead of divesting from Israel. Divestment, they claim, is too negative. Nothing could be further from the truth. Divestment is a highly mature, time-tested, non-violent method to resist injustice. There is no reason it cannot be paired with investment. That noted, the Israeli occupation is making sustainable investment in Palestine nearly impossible.
Last year the World Bank acknowledged that Palestinian economic "growth has been unsustainable, driven primarily by donor aid rather than a rebounding private sector, which remains stifled by Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets."
In a perfected Orwellian move, pro-Israeli lobbyists publicly promote investment in Palestine, but simultaneously turn a blind eye to the systematic Israeli polices strangling the Palestinian economy. Investment in Palestine — without divestment from the Israeli occupation — only continues to underwrite the status quo of military occupation. For investment to be successful, occupation must be dismantled and control passed to Palestinians.
Palestinian civil society and Palestinians — Christians and Muslims alike — have urged everyone interested in seeing peace with justice to divest from the occupation. We struggle to remain hopeful while a cement wall as high as 24 feet snakes through our homeland. After all, we don’t want a more beautiful prison to live in. We want the prison walls dividing Palestinians from Palestinians to come down, and that won’t happen unless economic pressure is placed on Israel to end the occupation.
– Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business development consultant. He blogs at www.epalestine.com. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was first published in the Huffington Post on July 25, 2012.)