Deepening Crisis

Economic conditions in the West Bank as well as Gaza are deteriorating, leaving
many incensed at the masquerade of peace talks

Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
25th April, 2008

As 1.5 million Gazans are crying out to the world to pressure Israel
to lift its scandalously callous blockade of the coastal territory,
another 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank are struggling to
cope with an unprecedented economic crisis that is further
impoverishing and exhausting them.

The crisis, the harshest in recent memory, stems from a host of local
and global factors, including soaring food and energy prices, sagging
currency value, rampant joblessness and draconian Israeli
restrictions on the movement of people, goods and services.

Further exacerbating these conditions is a devastating drought,
unseen for decades, and which has nearly destroyed this year’s grain
crops upon which many Palestinian families depend for their
livelihood. And the drought is not just affecting farmers. Coupled
with a phenomenal rise in temperatures, it is also expected to cause
a serious water shortage crisis in most localities, especially in the
summer months.

Some Palestinians are already at loss as to how they will be able to
cope with the steep rise in basic commodities.

Take flour, for example — a staple for most Palestinian families.
Last year, a sack of wheat flour weighing 50 kilogrammes cost 70
Israeli Shekels, or $20. Today, the same amount costs 210 Israeli
Shekels or $65. Prices of other basic consumer products, such as
rice, sugar, cooking oil, meat, including poultry, vegetables and
fruits have likewise skyrocketed, making them nearly unaffordable for
many Palestinian families. This week, a kilo of medium-quality
tomatoes was sold in the Hebron region for 10 Israeli Shekels or $3.

Further, the price of electricity and cooking gas have become a real
burden for the poorer segments of society, with many families unable
to pay their accumulating utility bills, some resorting to burning
wood for cooking. Added to that is the freefall in the value of the
Jordanian Dinar, the main currency of Palestinian savings. The Dinar
has lost a fourth of its value against the Israeli Shekel.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which depends to a large extent on
handouts from the West and oil-rich Arab countries, has failed to
deal with the evolving crisis.

Last week, the Federation of Palestinian Labour Unions, launched a
“warning strike” to protest against the high cost of living as well
as the government’s refusal to pay the accumulating salaries of
thousands of school teachers and other civil servants appointed in
2006 following Hamas’s electoral victory.

Initially, the government of Salam Fayyad rattled sabres in the face
of the striking civil servants, vowing to prosecute and punish
strikers. The government eventually backed down, however, promising
to resolve “all issues” in a friendly manner and through dialogue.

With PA-Israeli peace talks going nowhere, and with Israel continuing
to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, effectively annulling
any remaining prospect for a viable Palestinian state, the next few
months are predicted to be crucial in terms of how the Palestinians
will elect to manage their national ordeal.

Al-Ahram Weekly asked Palestinian economist Hazem Kawasmi how he
thought the Palestinian masses would cope with the present economic
crunch. Kawasmi said he foresaw an “unprecedented” and “historic
deterioration” in the Palestinian economy that would shake the
political and economic system in Palestine and the region.

As to the situation in the Gaza Strip, where there is economic
meltdown resulting from the hermetic Israeli blockade, Kawasmi
predicts an “explosion” in the coming few weeks or months. This
explosion, he argued, would again be directed towards the Egyptian
border, for the sake of getting food, medicine and all kinds of goods
that don’t exist today in the Gaza Strip.

“One cannot expect people to live in hunger and in high rates of
poverty and unemployment for a long time. There is no convincing
justification why the Palestinian- Egyptian border at Rafah has not
opened yet, even on temporary basis, leaving Gazan children, women
and elderly people to die slowly and suffer on a daily basis,” he

The Palestinian people in Gaza, Kawasmi said, shouldn’t continue to
suffer until all political problems in the region are solved, adding
that unless there is an immediate economic arrangement on Rafah that
will facilitate the movement of goods and people across the border,
the Gazan economy will soon collapse entirely.

As to the West Bank, Kawasmi points out that Israel is taking steps
to disengage itself economically from the West Bank. As soon as the
so-called apartheid wall is completed, Kawasmi argues, “the basis for
the new economic relationship will be, from an Israeli view point:
‘We are here, and you are there, and we don’t care.'”

In this context, Palestinians are growing disillusioned with peace
talks with Israel. According to a poll conducted in mid-April by the
Jerusalem Centre for Information and Communication, the proportion of
Palestinians supporting the two-state solution fell from 53 per cent
in October 2007 to 47 per cent now. Similarly, those who voiced
optimism about the possibility of reaching a peaceful solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict fell substantially from 44.9 per cent
last year to 36 per cent now.

According to the poll, Palestinians are voicing a variety of views as
to the alternatives available to the current political deadlock, with
more than 27 per cent advocating a third Intifada or uprising, and 37
per cent calling for dismantling and dissolving the PA. Nearly 13 per
cent favoured a unilateral declaration of independence.

To be sure, Palestinian frustration with the peace process is more
than justified since that process has so far yielded no substantive
outcome despite numerous talk sessions, highlighted meetings —
involving American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders — as well as a
number of peace conferences in the US and Europe.

This week, Henry Siegman, director of the US/Middle East Project in
New York, underscored the bankruptcy and disingenuousness of the
peace process. “What is required of statesmen is not more peace
conferences or clever adjustments to previous peace formulations but
the moral and political courage to end their collaboration with the
massive hoax the peace process has been turned into,” he said.

“Of course,” he added, “Palestinian violence must be condemned and
stopped, particularly when it targets civilians. But is it not
utterly disingenuous to pretend that Israel’s occupation —
maintained by Israel’s army-manned checkpoint and barricades,
helicopter gun-ships, jet fighters, targeted assassinations, and
military incursions, not to speak of the massive theft of Palestinian
lands –is not an exercise in continuous and unrelenting violence
against more than three million civilians? If Israel were to renounce
violence, could the occupation last even one day?”


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