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The pauperization of Palestine

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Palestinian children play in the streets of the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City.
(Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

Sonja Karkar

The inglorious end of Ehud Olmert’s term as Israeli Prime Minister will likely result in a continuation of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority under the new leader, Tzipi Livni. She will have a difficult time.

The illegal settlement movement supported by every Israeli administration to date has burgeoned out of control and its right-wing leaders are vehemently opposed to negotiating land for peace. More than likely, we will see Livni use the same stalling tactics that have up until now allowed land grabs from the Palestinians for the Zionist dream of a greater Israel. After all, Livni was nurtured on that dream. What that means is a 15-year peace process ominously poised for failure — not just politically, but also economically.

The 1993 Oslo Peace Accords were supposed to offer the Palestinians the political freedom and economic independence to which they have always been entitled. Since then, Palestinian society has been taken on a roller-coaster ride of promises, lies, provocations, and chaos with not a single benefit to show for its painful concessions.

So much has been made of Oslo’s promise of new beginnings when in actual fact the real historic moment of peace occurred when Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat agreed to a two-state solution at the United Nations General Assembly in 1988, accepting on behalf of his people, Israel’s “right to exist” on 78 percent of the land stolen from the Palestinians. That was the hard-won chance for resolving the conflict that Israel should have grasped with both hands. However, Israel was never going to let go its dreams of taking all of the land, and the Oslo Accords and every renewed peace process since then, have simply paid lip-service to Palestinian aspirations while Israel has pursued its own objectives in defiance of international law.

Powerful Israeli interests, and not Arafat’s intransigence or Palestinian terrorism, have caused Oslo’s failures. From the beginning, Israel and the World Bank violated the economic clauses of the accords supposedly designed to improve and stimulate recovery from the disastrous circumstances that had already been visited on the Palestinians by Israel’s military assaults and occupation in the previous decades. As the Harvard University political economist Dr. Sara Roy points out, “decades of expropriation and deinstitutionalization had long ago robbed Palestine of its potential for development, ensuring that no viable economic (and hence political structure) could emerge” (Sara Roy, “A Dubai on the Mediterranean,” London Review of Books, 3 November 2005). A viable economy is essential for the functioning of an independent Palestinian state.

No sooner had control of Oslo’s economic development programs shifted to the World Bank, than the basic infrastructure that was supposed to have been built was reported as “repairs” to infrastructure when none in fact existed, while the building of a casino in Jericho took precedence over essential ports, roads, and canals. Those who were involved in the corrupt casino project read like a who’s who of the Israeli political establishment — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former primer ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Sharon’s advisor Dov Weissglas in concert with an Austrian-Jewish businessman Martin Schlaff who is now being investigated for giving millions of dollars in bribes to Lieberman and Sharon.

The “Gaza and Jericho First” stage of the Oslo Accords provided the perfect opportunity for gambling tycoons to bypass Israel where gambling is illegal. The casino took in around a million dollars a day from Israelis streaming into occupied Jericho for the pleasure of gambling while many Palestinians were barely able to put food on the table. When the Gaza airport and seaport were finally built thanks to European Union efforts along with roads, waterways and the Palestinian broadcasting station, Israel set about destroying each of them, citing security reasons. Conservatively, Israel’s destruction of infrastructure has been estimated at $3.5 billion, while lost potential income for the Palestinian economy has been estimated at around $6.4 billion, the total loss far exceeding the overall international assistance received from 1994-1999 (UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary General A/ 60/90, (d) Assistance to the Palestinian people – Mr Mansour (Palestine), 14 November 2005).

The deliberate pauperization of the Palestinian economy was further exacerbated by the punitive closure of Palestinian society. A complicated system of checkpoints and roadblocks severely restricted the movement of Palestinians and goods and prevented Palestinians from traveling to Israel for work. Unemployment hit record highs going from less than seven percent before 1993 to 25 percent in the West Bank and 38 percent in Gaza in the first quarter of 1996 (Leila Farsakh, Trans-Arab Research Institute factsheet #4, “The Palestinian economy and the Oslo “Peace Process”). What is not widely known is that Israel had created a Palestinian economy deeply dependent on its own during the previous 30 years, which meant that closure was now far more devastating than it would have been otherwise.

As the living standards plummeted and destitution pervaded every level of Palestinian society, Palestinians reacted angrily. But, Palestinian violence was not wholesale. Subjected to a barrage of provocations, minority groups and traumatized individuals committed most of the violence with homemade weapons. One of those early provocations was the terrorist attack and killing of 29 praying Palestinians in a Hebron mosque by right-wing extremist Baruch Goldstein who is today venerated by the Kach settler movement to which he belonged.

Nevertheless, Israel launched reprisals each time against the entire Palestinian population — almost half under the age of 15 — using the powerful force of its military arsenal in defiance of international law, which prohibits collective punishment. Even so, international public opinion has not been swayed, then or now, by the nonviolent efforts of Palestinian resistance carried out weekly by community groups in towns and villages all over the West Bank. Instead, it remains fixated on Palestinian armed attacks and suicide bombings without any regard for the disintegration of Palestinian society under Israel’s humiliating control and human rights abuses.

By 2000, the Palestinians were highly charged, especially after Arafat was derided for refusing to negotiate “peace” when he walked away from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s much-lauded “generous” offer at Camp David. Concessions on Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return were not his alone to make and Barak knew it. To bolster his own political ambitions, Barak was able to persuade the public that Arafat had pre-planned the second Palestinian intifada while negotiating peace and had sought to destroy Israel through the return of millions of refugees. Israeli researchers though have shown that the heads of Israel’s military intelligence and the Shin Bet security service dismissed the existence of any such plan and that Israeli public opinion — hitherto ready for territorial concessions even during periods of violence — had been manipulated by Barak to accept that Palestinians had chosen terror instead of peace to achieve their objectives (see Henry Siegman, “Sharon and the Future of Palestine,” The New York Review of Books, 2 December 2004).

At the same time, Israel increased its settlement expansion in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in spite of the Oslo Accords prohibiting “any change in the status of the West Bank …” Throughout the last 15 years, successive Israeli governments have all continued to build these illegal housing estates for waves of Jewish settlers from abroad while the Palestinians are being pushed into arid areas creating a series of disconnected Bantustans, much like what was created in apartheid South Africa. Despite Israeli-only roads, concrete walls, electric fencing and military zones separating the two peoples, Israel promotes these modern housing estates as “normal” developments. In effect, it has forced the Palestinians into a system of complete dependency where Israel controls all borders and airspace, Gaza’s territorial waters and 80 percent of all the water resources.

Prevented from producing and competing with Israel’s economy, the Palestinians became forced consumers and this is perpetuated by foreign aid. Effectively international donors foot the bill while Israeli companies profit from the desperate need of an entire population under Israel’s occupation. Foreign aid has done nothing to revitalize the economy, and has only made the Palestinians one of the most aid-dependent populations in the world. According to the latest World Bank report, “aid and reform are unlikely to revive the Palestinian economy unless Israel removes economic restrictions at the same time” (World Bank, “Palestinian Economic Prospects: Aid, Access and Reform,” 22 September 2008). Even so, with a staggering 98 percent of Gaza’s industry now inactive due to Israel’s punitive sanctions, according to the World Bank, removing those restrictions will not bring about economic recovery any time soon, if at all. The magnitude of social destruction is incomprehensible as 1.4 million people grapple with failing sewers, sewage-polluted water, rationed food, practically no electricity or fuel and a crumbling infrastructure of roads, schools, hospitals, transport system and other normal municipal services. This systematic “de-development” is spiraling into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis likely to have grave political consequences.

Today, Israel will cite the demographic problem it faces with a Palestinian population fast catching up in size to the Israeli population. It is a problem of Israel’s making and one that it could solve tomorrow if it was not moving systematically and determinedly to expand its territory and fulfill its colonial ambitions for a Greater Israel. It will not be long before the four million Palestinians being herded into reservations will be as much a problem for Israel to police as it will be for the Palestinians to endure. The word apartheid looms large.

If comparisons begin to be made with apartheid South Africa, Israel will have to justify its existence as an exclusively Jewish state under a whole new set of rules. Thus, the more it normalizes its current position and keeps talking about peace, the less likely there is of that happening. Once the Palestinians are crushed economically, they will have few choices left: it will be slave labor in the industrial estates now being built or transfer, if they survive. With time, Palestinians will simply vanish into the ether as if they never existed. That is the truth that is being silenced and that is a narrative that the public needs to hear.

Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine and one of the founders and co-conveners of Australians for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.