During United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's latest visit here, Meretz-Yahad MK Zahava Gal-On presented her a document from the United Nations showing that the Palestinian middle class is disappearing and that there is now another way to steal lands from the Palestinians.
In between meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and visiting Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the secretary of state found time to have a conversation with Gal-On. Rice did not take much of an interest in the opinions of the left-wing Israeli politician about the disintegration of the peace process or the flourishing of Jewish settlements in the territories. Instead, the secretary of state invited Gal-On in her capacity as chair of the Knesset committee on the fight against the trade in women.
Rice related that she receives updated information from the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv about the well-established industry, which has afforded Israel an unflattering place in the international ranking published by the U.S. State Department last October. This dubious honor forced Israel to submit a semi-annual report last month on the situation of the traffic in women and on the steps the authorities are taking against the traders.
At the meeting, which was also attended by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Coalition Chairman MK Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima) and Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Saar, Rice related that President George W. Bush is personally committed to the fight against the traffic in human beings in general, and against the traffic in women and migrant workers in particular. She evinced interest in the plan for the rehabilitation of the women and in a new law Gal-On initiated, which enables the seizure of traffickers' property and the transfer of the proceeds from it, together with the fines imposed on them, to a special fund used to pay for rehabilitation activities. Gal-On told Rice that Interior Minister Ronni Bar-On has decided to grant those women who have agreed to testify against traffickers permits to stay in Israel.
It isn't every day that an ardent Israeli leftist has the opportunity to spend time with a senior American stateswoman. Gal-On made the most of it. She compelled Rice to listen to her belief that if there is no substantial change in the situation in the Gaza Strip, it will compete with Somalia for first place in the international anarchy rankings. Gal-On shared some of her impressions from a seminar held three weeks ago in Doha.
The most searing impression is expressed in a position paper submitted by Khaled Abdel Shafi, the head of the Program for Assistance to the Palestinian People at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Gaza. The document, the details of which were for some reason omitted from the reports on the meeting in Qatar, reveals that according to unpublished records of the Gaza police, the number of crimes reported in 2006 is greater than the number of crimes committed in the Strip since 1948. That is, during the course of one year, more crimes were committed than in nearly 60 years.
Abdel Shafi noted that this shocking datum testifies not only to the extent of poverty, but also to the low status of the rule of law and to the level of morality in a society which used to be renowned for its social fabric and moral values. The Palestinians are losing their middle class, which is the key to economic growth and a healthy society. Scores of businesspeople have shut down their businesses and factories and have gone to seek their luck in the West and in Arab countries, principally Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States and Sudan. Others, among them large building contractors and manufacturers of furniture and textiles, as well as members of the free professions and executives, have been packing their suitcases. Abdel Shafi related that five of his best employees have immigrated to the United States, Canada and Jordan. Five others are waiting for entry visas to Canada.
And this is just the beginning. During the first half of 2006, the real gross domestic product declined by 9 percent - a rate equivalent to the decline in GDP during the first five years of the intifada taken together. The International Monetary Fund has recently estimated that the resources at the PA's disposal have dwindled by 60 percent during the past year, from $1.3 billion to $500 million. The economic indices show that this trend also continued during the second half of the past year. The annual rate of resource shrinkage is expected to reach 27 percent and will thus make 2006 the worst year in the history of the Palestinian economy.
According to the figures of the PA Bureau of Statistics, two-thirds of the households in the territories (2.7 million people) lived below the poverty line in June 2006. Of them, 2.4 million are unable to see to basic needs like food, clothing and housing. In Gaza, the proportion of the poor has already reached 87 percent. Unemployment is continuing to break records and has already reached 40 percent there. The average Palestinian worker supported 8.3 people during the second quarter of 2006 (as compared to 5.9 people at the start of the intifada).
The conclusion of the senior UN representative in the Gaza Strip directly touched upon the visit by the first lady of American diplomacy in the region. "The international community and the Quartet have to act before it is too late," asserted Abdel Shafi, "before the trends mentioned above become irreversible." The solution to the crisis, he concluded, does not lie in humanitarian aid but rather in a diplomatic agreement.
Fear of death
Last year's deliberations in the High Court of Justice on the construction of the illegal neighborhood of Matityahu East, located on the outskirts of the Jewish settlement of Modi'in Illit in the West Bank, revealed a circular method for acquiring lands in the territories. Attorney Renato Jarach argued on behalf of one of the large construction companies building the neighborhood that the land on which the multi-story buildings for the ultra-Orthodox population have been built was purchased many years ago from inhabitants of the village of Bil'in.
According to him, the purchasers deposited the lands into the hands of the custodian general of the Civil Administration, so he would declare them "state lands." When the time came to build another Jewish settlement, the Civil Administration returned the deposit to the purchasers and the land was redeemed. This circular movement helps blur the tracks of those involved in real estate deals in the territories and invites crooks from among both peoples.
Jarach, who in the past was the director of the department of petitions to the High Court of Justice in the State Prosecutor's Office, argued that the prosecutor's office had given its blessing to the procedure. He explained that the strange procedure was aimed at protecting the land's sellers from the death sentence expected for land dealers. Among the dealers who over the years have benefited from this arrangement are the brothers Yaakov and Yosef Amram, suspected of dealing in stolen lands in the West Bank worth tens of millions of shekels.
A letter signed by the brothers' lawyer, attorney Eitan Tsachi, who is also entangled in the same affair, shows how anxiety about the fate of the lands' sellers serves as cover for criminals. The letter was sent on June 13, 2004 to then-chairman of the Himnuta company (a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund) Haim Cohen, in protest against the exposure of a power-of-attorney document mentioning the names of Palestinian landowners from the Gush Etzion region who had sold their lands to a subsidiary company of the JNF - with the mediation of the Amram brothers. The letter, a copy of which has reached Haaretz, states that the Jerusalem District Court accepted the prosecution's argument that it is obliged to maintain secrecy and did not demand of it or of the Land Registry in Judea and Samaria that they reveal the identities of the lands' sellers.
Tsachi complains that, "The matter of the execution of collaborators with Jews in land deals is known to Himnuta and the company committed itself to my client to maintain secrecy." According to him, if the sellers' identities are revealed, his client can expect general collapse, as no one will agree any longer to sell the company lands.
A police investigation found that what was bothering the Jerusalemite land dealers was not the punishment expected for the sellers because of the disclosure of their names and their reputations. They were worried, and justifiably so, about the punishment expected for the mediators after it emerged that the powers of attorney, by means of which they had carried out the deals, were forged. Dozens of inhabitants of Bil'in, whose lands were annexed to Matityahu East, claim that if the police examine the powers of attorney on which their forged signatures appear, they will find that the cynical concern for Palestinians' health is nothing but a cheap trick to steal their property.
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