Lori Allen, an anthropologist at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, is an editor of Middle East Report, a publication of the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC.
Secretary Rice's recent Middle East tour concluded without any discussion of peace between Isreal and Palestine. Unity talks between Fatah and Hamas have hit a standstill. In other words, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian political compromise appears bleaker than ever. Meanwhile, U.S. and European governments reiterate their demands of the Palestinian Authority after Hamas' electoral victory in March: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace accords. While Hamas has repeatedly offered Israel a long-term truce, they have not announced their recognition of the Jewish state.
In the midst of all these political machinations, the Palestinian people are paying the price. Their lives and livelihoods should no longer be held hostage to the ongoing diplomatic stagnation.
It has been more than six months since the U.S. and its European allies imposed an economic embargo on the democratically elected Hamas-led government. The government of Israel has suspended the transfer of clearance revenues to the Palestinian Authority, amounting to between $50 and $70 million a month—taxes collected for Palestinians on “behalf” of the Palestinian Authority. Recent media reports detail the alarming economic, social and humanitarian consequences of this blockade for Palestinian society. According to the U.N. World Food Program, 70 percent of Gazans are totally dependent on food aid, and many families are living on one meal a day. While international relief organizations have warned of a humanitarian crisis should external funding not resume, they neglect to explain the history, context and likely outcomes of the impending emergency.
It has been six years since Israel tightened its system of checkpoints and closures on the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem at the start of the second intifada. The World Bank reports that along with the separation barrier, this closure regime restricting the movement of goods and people within the occupied territories and beyond has drastically fragmented the territories. Palestinians’ income has deflated and their meager savings are depleted by years of economic suffocation, with unemployment above 23 percent and almost half the population living in poverty—and more than that in Gaza. Hunger and disease are spreading, and signals of incipient social breakdown abound.
The financial siege on the Palestinian Authority is particularly devastating because Palestinians have been forced by the Israeli occupation into almost complete dependence on foreign aid for growth, development and survival. Neither the state economy nor family budgets can become self-sustaining when an external power wields near absolute control over the movement of people and goods. This is the kindling of conflagrations to come.
Israel has killed more than 220 Palestinians since the June capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, more than two dozen during the most recent Israeli incursion into Gaza over the past few days. Sporadic and lethal gun battles between members of Fatah and Hamas have led Palestinian citizens, frustrated and angry about these incidents, to plead from mosque loudspeakers for the withdrawal of armed men from the streets. Politicians and editorialists are calling for national unity, but the economic pressures and political disarray seem to have gained a deadly momentum and blocked egress from this morass.
Now that teachers, school administrators and other civil servants are striking to protest the embargo on their Palestinian Authority-paid salaries, students’ educations are likewise impeded. UNICEF reports that the majority of the 1,726 Palestinian public schools are either partially or completely closed. Meanwhile, increasing poverty and persistent checkpoints are dissolving the social ties that sustain people. The World Bank predicts that in 2006 Palestinian GDP will have suffered a 27 percent decline. Families can no longer afford the cost of transportation to visit one another, and crime is on the rise.
According to the sanctions' logic, Palestinians will be starved into demanding that their government fulfill the conditions imposed by the international community. The ill-concealed goal of such tactics is to cause Hamas to lose favor with constituents they are unable to provide for. However, many in the Hamas government were imprisoned before they could try their hand at governing. As such, many Palestinians have looked past ideological differences to stand by the party, believing that their democratically elected representatives should have a chance to succeed or fail according to their own merits or missteps. To move the process along, the U.S. is now supporting a campaign to bring down the Hamas-led government and reinstall Fatah, which the Palestinian people voted out of government because of their corrupt and inept leadership.
These years of economic suffocation will undoubtedly produce an even more resentful population. In a few years, those who are youth now, when food is scarce and education impossible, will grow into leaders. The lesson they will have learned is that suffering for the sake of democracy brings only punishment and swindles.
If funding and the ability to move and work are not restored now, it will not be long until the world finds out what alternative system the young people raised in these desperate circumstances might develop. Lifting the siege on the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society is the necessary first step—but only the first—toward removing the Israeli occupation that is the root cause of Palestinians’ economic woes and the source of insecurity for Palestinians, Israelis and the international community.
In contrast to the U.S. push to prop up Fatah, over one hundred world leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Desmond Tutu, have recently published a statement calling for a new international conference to sketch out a comprehensive peace agreement. They wisely urge “support for a Palestinian national unity government, with an end to the political and financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority.” A group of prominent Jewish political personalities and philanthropists are leading another initiative to push the Bush administration to do more to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinian daily Al-Quds is currently running an opinion poll on the question of how Palestinians can get out of the current crisis: an emergency government, a government of technocrats or a national unity government. Shouldn’t the Palestinians be supported in finding their own methods out of this madness?