A Nation of Beggars
by Amira Hass
1 March 2006
It is not the Palestinians who should be welcoming the European Union's decision to hastily donate another $142 million before the Hamas government is formed. It is Israel that ought to be pleased that the Western states will continue compensating the Palestinians for the economic decline that is a product of the Israeli occupation.
For it is not natural disasters that have transformed the Palestinians into a nation that lives on handouts from the world; it is Israel's accelerating colonialist process. One facet of this is the continued takeover of Palestinian lands (whether "private" or public lands, it is the same thing), expansion of construction only for Jews, and de facto annexation by Israel of extensive tracts of Palestinian territory, while simultaneously breaking up the West Bank into enclaves and enclosures for Palestinians.
Another facet of this colonization is a regime of excessive restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of Palestinians between their enclosures and enclaves within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The pledged European donation, part of which is intended to pay salaries in the Palestinian public sector, shows that Europe is having a difficult time preventing Israel from robbing in broad daylight Palestinian tax and customs monies, amounting to between $50 million and $65 million a month. It also shows that Europe assesses that the U.S. will not pressure Israel to return the stolen funds - in contrast with the pressure it exerted at the beginning of the intifada, when Israel also blocked the transfer of tax monies.
Indeed, the funds are levied at Israeli ports and within Israel, but on Palestinian private sector transactions. This is Palestinian money, which by every standard of proper administration must not accrue interest in the Israeli treasury when it should be transferred to the Palestinian health or education ministries.
The money constitutes about two-thirds of the income that derives from Palestinian economic activity. One-third - about $35 million a month - are taxes directly levied on economic activity within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These sums could be much higher, and could help to balance out the donations and handouts to the Palestinian ongoing budget, were it not for the Israeli measures taken against the Palestinian economy and its potential for development.
These measures are not newly imposed on the occasion of Hamas' ascendance. No - Israel has destroyed and continues to destroy Palestinian agriculture, the two Palestinian national vegetable gardens - in the eastern and in the western sections of the West Bank - by means of the separation fence and de facto annexation of the Jordan Rift. Destruction of lands, prevention of access to cultivated lands and orchards, imposition of marketing impediments, harm to water sources - all of these have made destitute tens of thousands of proud farmers, and reduced their contribution to the national income.
Even before the current intifada, Israel hurt Palestinian industry's chances to develop, while channeling it into "industry regions" adjacent to Israel. Through its control over most of the West Bank territory (60 percent - all of the Area C - which Israel set aside for expansion of the Jewish settlements), control was achieved through imposition of maximal restrictions: on construction permits, Palestinian developments plans, transfer of factory buildings out of residential neighborhoods, and the upgrading of industrial facilities.
Another method was based on restriction of movement from one region to the other. These restrictions have existed since 1991, but have grown more harsh in the past five years. You don't need to be an economist to understand just how unworthwhile it is to manufacture, to employ, to market or to trade when it takes a truck loaded with raw materials or finished goods eight hours to reach its destination, instead of one hour.
Another method of impairing Palestinian development potential is cutting off access to institutions of higher learning. Israel does not permit Gazans to study in the West Bank, where the educational institutions are better, and does not permit East Jerusalem Palestinians to study in the West Bank. The checkpoints and the creation of fenced-off enclosures compel students from the West Bank to live near their university, even if it is only 20 kilometers from home. This is an additional financial burden that many families cannot bear. The thinning out of the universities' sources of income also affects their level.
There are no lack of economists who can prove the connection between Israeli methods of control and decline of the Palestinian economy. Abundant studies trace the direct line between the draconian restrictions on movement and the transformation of the majority of the Palestinian people into a nation of charity recipients, and it is a safe bet that the initiatives to continue giving them handouts of various sorts will go on unabated.
Therefore, the Palestinians should be worried and concerned, not happy, about Monday's announcement by the EU foreign ministers. It signals that the European states are going to continue forfeiting any opportunity to exert political pressure to put a stop to the Israeli policy of colonization, which has systematically sabotaged the economic capability of the Palestinians. By transferring the funds, they are covering up, and will continue to do so, for their political helplessness, and for their decision not to quarrel with the U.S., which supports this Israeli policy.
With the establishment of a Hamas-led government, other formulas will be found to continue providing the Palestinians a safety net of contributions and handouts. The government of Israel will cry foul and scream "Aid to Hamas!" but will quietly be pleased at the prospect.
AMIRA HASS is an Israeli living and working in the Occupied Territories. She is a journalist whose work appears in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz and is author of “Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land under Siege” (2000).
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