By Sam Bahour – Ramallah
A serious misconception is being propagated by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Media, international organizations, foreign governments and Palestinians- at-large are being coaxed into believing that the flurry of economic activity in the West Bank is economic development towards statehood. The facts on the ground rip this argument to pieces, just as Israel continues to micromanage the economic pieces of the intended future state of Palestine toward systemic stagnation.
I can already hear the voices – “but be positive; we must start from somewhere; we are acting unilaterally toward statehood; but we had 7% GDP growth last year, etc, etc.” Being positive is one thing, but being delusional and acquiescing in a military occupation that controls every serious aspect of our lives, especially the economic ones, is unacceptable.
The Economic Players
I don’t question the well-meaning intentions (with the exception of the occupier) of all the economic players involved, in promoting this misconception that West Bankers are on a rapid train of economic growth.
The Palestinian leadership has very little – or no – political capital left, so focusing on economic activities – something, I maintain, that is very different from economic preparation for statehood – is expected. Add to this, the fact that some key Palestinian players, namely Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have already started campaigning for the possible upcoming Presidential elections, and one can readily see the self-serving need to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony every day or two.
The Israelis could not ask for better. Under the cloak of Israel’s Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘Economic Peace’, Israel has been able to pull the wool over the world’s eyes as they create irreversible facts on the ground like illegal Jewish-only settlements, while continuing to squeeze Palestinian society so hard that many Palestinians are voluntarily emigrating, something Israel has failed to totally secure forcibly during multiple military adventures, most notably in 1948 and 1967. This slow but study exodus is emptying Palestine of its human capital which is already severely depleted by dint of the restrictions placed upon us.
The donor community, which continues to generously prop up the Palestinian government in Ramallah also can’t really be blamed for wanting to have an economic framework to justify their continued financial support to the Palestinian Authority. The states behind these funds have been politically handicapped for decades, as they await the next US political cue about what will happen next. The next best thing for them is to claim some laurels for institution-building and reform within the context of ‘economic peace’. The Quartet’s special envoy, Tony Blair’s mission is exactly that, an economic mission and not a political one, despite the fact that the Quartet is a highly political animal (U.S., Russia, EU, and the UN) carrying with it the last remaining available clout to address core political issues that are bottlenecking serious resolution of the conflict.
International organizations are not to be fully blamed either. These organizations only have the tools that they use to measure the economies of sovereign states, the likes of GDP, GNP, and growth ratios. So, when I must drive one hour farther to reach my destination because Israel has erected an illegal separation barrier, or when roads throughout the West Bank are prohibited from being repaired by the Israeli military which causes constant damage to my car, this is all great news for Palestine’s GDP since I’m spending more on gas and visiting my car repair shop more frequently. That said, almost every one of the reports emerging from these specialized organizations such as the World Bank, are more truthful to the reality on the ground than most others. This can be seen by a few sentences in the World Bank’s latest report:
“Over time, however, the apparatus of control itself has gradually become more sophisticated and effective in its ability to interfere in and affect every aspect of Palestinian life, including job opportunities, work, and earnings. Extensive and multilayered, the apparatus of control includes a permit system, physical obstacles known as closures, restricted roads, prohibitions on entering large areas of land in the West Bank, and most notably the Separation Barrier. It has turned the West Bank into a fragmented set of social and economic islands or enclaves cut off from one another.” (Checkpoints and Barriers: Searching for Livelihoods in the West Bank and Gaza, World Bank, Gender Dimensions of Economic Collapse, February, 2010)
I could go on.
In Broad Daylight
The facts are sitting in broad daylight for those willing to seek them out. The Israeli military occupation is alive and well in every nook and cranny of Gaza and the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem. Forty percent of our population under occupation in Gaza is being purposely strangulated. Sixty percent of our total population – refugees and those in the Diaspora – do not even enter the consciousness of most players’ minds.
Economic activity, in which I am (proudly) involved, is happening and that should not be news in and of itself. It should also not be touted around as economic development. Yes, Palestinians wake up every morning and go to work just like the rest of the world, despite the most strangling economic restrictions that they have ever faced. The resilience of Palestinians, especially the private sector, is worthy of a Grammy Award for Persevering In Survival Economics.
However, economic development and growth worthy of building the foundations of the economy of a future state is nowhere to be found. How could it be? All key aspects of a true economy are squarely in the hands of Israel, our occupier. Israel, alone, holds the levers to our water, movement, access, all borders, airspace, electricity, electromagnetic spectrum, just to name a few. A new building in Ramallah, or 100 for that matter, make for good ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but are as far from economic state-building as is wrong is from right.
An Israeli friend noted to me the other day a different way to look at what’s on the table. Being positive, I’m willing to accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘Economic Peace’ when he and his country become serious in releasing the economic resources of Palestine that they fully control. Short of that, we Palestinians will keep picking up the pieces of our lives until that inevitable day of reckoning arrives when Israel will have to look at itself in the mirror and accept what it sees there for real – one apartheid state!
– Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant living in the Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of HOMELAND: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com.