Putting hope on the horizon
Even under conditions of extreme hardship, Palestinians maintain a high standard of literacy: According to the World Bank, the illiteracy rate among persons aged 15 and above is only 6.1 percent, compared to an average of 27.5 percent in the Arab world in general.
On a recent visit to a Cairo hospital to meet children wounded in the recent Israeli operation in Gaza, I talked with 10-year-old Riad, who was recovering from serious injuries caused by an Israeli missile. Replying to my question about what he plans to do after he recovers and returns to Gaza, he said his goal is to study telecom engineering, in order to work in telecommunications. In addition to his own injuries, Riad lost several family members. Nonetheless, what he dreams of is a job and peace - not revenge.
How do we advance the hopes of this young boy, at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are at a political stalemate? For some of us in the Palestinian business community, the answer is to it take upon ourselves to create of a viable, thriving and democratic Palestinian society and state. This means preparing our youth to be able to participate fully in a future state that can compete globally, but it also means building a vibrant private-sector economy, which will be able to function only if paired with the clear promise of a two-state solution.
As businesspeople, we did not exploit the opportunity created by the Oslo process to foster opportunities that would allow both peoples to reap the fruits of peace. Now, the stakes are higher and the need for progress is more urgent. That's one reason why the PalTel Group, a Palestinian telecommunications company, founded the PalTel Group Foundation, the first self-financed, charitable organization seeking to transform daily life in the West Bank and Gaza.
Even under conditions of extreme hardship, Palestinians maintain a high standard of literacy: According to the World Bank, the illiteracy rate among persons aged 15 and above is only 6.1 percent, compared to an average of 27.5 percent in the Arab world in general. Between them, the West Bank and Gaza have 12 universities, 12 colleges and 19 community colleges, with a total of 180,000 students. These are remarkable enrollment numbers, considering the many restrictions regularly faced by Palestinian students under Israeli occupation - a testament to the value Palestinians assign to education.
However, higher education is increasingly becoming an economic luxury. For those families who can afford it, there is the lure of studying overseas, far away from the violence and political instability. This is causing a Palestinian brain drain. That's why we established the Palestine Education Fund (PEF), to administer a revolving loan fund that enables students in both Gaza and the West Bank to benefit from both long- and short-term loans to cover tuition and other college expenses. Additionally, a separate scholarship fund exists for graduate students. We hope to help more than 8,000 students per year through our education initiatives.
We recognize the importance of new technologies, as do an increasing number of Palestinians. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, at least 32.8 percent of Palestinian families own a computer. Palestine's IT sector is one of the top economic fields, with phone telecommunications and Internet capability improving and expanding all the time.
As Palestinians we are committed to building our own future, but each day we must navigate a difficult reality. For there to be ongoing and sustainable private-sector reform and growth, supplemented by philanthropic dollars, there must be political leeway on the Israeli side. An economic horizon cannot exist without a clear political horizon.
We cannot ignore the fact that Israel continues to build settlements that not only impede Palestinians' daily life, but also, in the long run, make the two-state solution seem dubious. When confronting 600 Israeli checkpoints - and major infrastructure projects in the West Bank that serve the settlements exclusively - Palestinians have the right to ask: If Israel is sincere in its intention to withdraw, why is it building roads that Palestinians have no access to? This further aggravates Palestinians and provides a clear indication that a peaceful breakthrough is remote.
The United States, Arab countries and charities are currently suppling humanitarian aid and financing to rebuild Gaza. This is meritorious. However, why not create mechanisms to rebuild the entire economic infrastructure, including that of the West Bank, with the final goal being the creation of an infrastructure that can support a Palestinian state? Existing needs go beyond repairing the recent destruction in Gaza, to include roads, health care, education and the recycling of water. The new U.S. administration could spearhead an international effort to ensure that economic aid is not simply tied to immediate humanitarian needs, but is organized to empower private-sector development. And, on our end, Israel must clearly act to end the occupation and the Palestinians must be obligated to achieve unity.
Without transparency and accountability on Israel's part, first of all, and secure, free movement for the Palestinians - as well as a unified Palestinian government, cognizant of its international responsibilities - donors will logically fear the continued Israeli closure of Gaza and the rest of the territories. This will lead to the return of hostilities and the derailing of the stability needed for the reconstruction effort. All these eventualities have been the hallmark of the Palestinian-Israeli reality until now.
Dr. Abdul Malik Al-Jabr is chairman of the board of directors of the Ramallah-headquartered PalTel Group Foundation and vice chairman of the PalTel Group.