“Geniuses,” I said to myself when dozens of trucks and taxis blocked traffic in the heart of Hebron last Wednesday in protest against the price hikes. “Geniuses,” I continued to think when four hours later I passed by the same place, and heard that other demonstrators had set fire to an effigy of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The conclusion “geniuses” was only reinforced when on Friday before midnight I and the other drivers on Jerusalem Street in El Bireh had to turn back; flames were blocking the road at the entrance to the Al Amari refugee camp. And again, when the Saturday papers reported that garbage cans had been ignited and a wave of break-ins and robberies had taken place under the aegis of the Friday demonstrations in Bethlehem and its suburbs, I couldn’t help repeating: The Israelis, who designed the Oslo Accords almost 20 years ago, are geniuses. By doing so they guaranteed that the Palestinians would blame their leadership for the economic crisis and demonstrate against it by the thousands.
The panic among the PA leadership is steadily increasing. Speeches every day, with the climax coming Saturday afternoon at the press conference of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, which had been announced as top news by the Voice of Palestine radio station since Friday evening; interministerial committees that are established every other day with a promise to find ways to lower prices; another promise of meetings and discussions with representatives of the various parties and non-governmental organizations; radio programs in which the interviewers and interviewees, in a condescending and paternalistic tone, understand the demonstrators but scold them for the rioting and the destruction. And a conversation with the chef of the Zayit wa Za’atar restaurant, who explains how a return to grandmother’s cheaper, healthier, traditional menu will help cope with the high prices.
Every demonstrator who didn’t finish high school because he went out to help support his family is well aware that the worldwide crisis is also affecting the “non-state” of Palestine. Every Fatah loyalist who curses Fayyad and demands hoarsely that he resign (as Mubarak did) is aware that the prime minister could not promote a policy that is not acceptable to Abbas, who appointed him to his position. And every teacher whose salary is NIS 2,000 personally feels the outcome of the economic agreement with Israel, the Paris Protocol, which was signed by Fatah leader Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala). This customs agreement (“temporary,” like Oslo and Area C) shackles the Palestinian economy to the Israeli policy of indirect, regressive taxes. If this policy is such a burden on us, the Israelis who are not in the top decile, how could it not be even more of a burden for Palestinians whose salaries do not approach the Israeli minimum?
Oslo, a sweet deal for Israel
The leading lights of Oslo managed to write a contract that leaves Israel with the resources and the control over them, as well as the powers of sovereignty, while giving the PA the problems and the responsibility for solving them, but without the power and without the resources. In doing so they turned the PA into a defensive shield protecting the Israeli government from Palestinian fury. Is it any wonder that the demonstrators are turning to the only available address, and blame the PA for the price hike that it didn’t decide on? As for the Israelis, they enjoy believing that there is no connection between the crisis that hits the Palestinians and the occupation.
Even without the worldwide crisis and without the high indirect taxes − the latter being Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s baby − the Palestinian economy is handicapped and fragile, because of Israeli domination. Let us mention just a few facts − not all of them, because for that we would have to take over the entire page:
1. Israel is preventing Gaza from exporting agricultural and industrial products.
2. Israel is exploiting to the fullest the natural resources of the West Bank: water, quarries, mining in the Dead Sea, agricultural land, industrial zones, tourism and hiking sites. Every plus for the Israelis on the West Bank is a minus for the Palestinians.
3. Israel controls the electromagnetic spectrum and thereby limits the efficiency and profitability of the Palestinian cellular companies and the Palestinian high-tech industry.
4. Israel forbids Gaza fishermen to sail further than three nautical miles, severely limiting their prospects.
5. Israel conducts unfair competition with Palestinian products: subsidized water for Israeli farmers, including those in the settlements, compared to a minimal allocation of drinking water to the Palestinians. When drinking water in Hebron and Bethlehem is supplied to homes once a month, it’s no wonder that the vegetable fields are parched. (“Do you know how much a kilo of tomatoes costs? Eight shekels,” demonstrators in Hebron told me, as though they were talking about meat. “Do you know that we’ve stopped growing cauliflower?” said a farmer in Halhoul, angrily noting the Israeli cauliflower in the stall.)
6. Due to the Israeli refusal to link up Palestinian communities in Area C (the 61 percent of the West Bank which the Oslo Accords placed under full Israeli control), tens of thousands of people have to purchase water from tankers all year long. In the summer hundreds of thousands whose faucets have dried up have to buy water from tankers. The transportation increases the price of water to an average of eight times and more what their “neighbors,” the settlers, pay. With that money, how many enrichment classes in English and math could those families finance for their children? How many young men and women could they send to study at the university?
7. Israel forces the Palestinians to travel on twisting byways, from one enclave to another or from the city to the villages and towns in the district. Let’s assume that on average the distance to every destination is lengthened by 10 kilometers. That should be multiplied by six days a week, at least twice a day, 30,000 vehicles (and that’s without including about 100,000 private cars). The unnecessary additional cost is divided among the drivers on public transportation and the passengers, and between the truck drivers and the merchants and customers. How many clinics could this addition pay for? How many millions of euros does it cost the European taxpayer?
According to the Palestinian Economics Ministry, in 2010 alone Israeli domination caused the Palestinian economy a loss of about $6.8 billion. But that is not a reason not to go out to demonstrations. The Palestinian demonstrators are in effect saying that even in these suffocating conditions, their leadership has a certain amount of political and economic room for action, but for its own reasons is not using it to break the status quo created by the geniuses of Oslo.
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