The death toll on the Gaza border on Tuesday was shocking. Whether you accept the Israeli version that the Gazans are sheep being led to the slaughter by a cynical Hamas shepherd, or the Hamas version of desperate Palestinians seeking justice after 70 years, the fact remains that a lot of people who were innocent, or at worst naïve, were killed and maimed.
But it was equally shocking that in the West Bank remained as quiet as it has as the violence raged. More than that, the killing has been going on (albeit on a smaller scale) for weeks on the border without eliciting any noticeable reaction from West Bank Palestinians.
Revolutions are unpredictable. What causes people to escalate from suffering to actually rising up in mass protest remains a mystery to social scientists. But certainly in the case of the Palestinians, it can’t be that West Bankers are less dedicated to the national cause than their brothers and sisters in Gaza.
Neither are West Bankers’ political horizons a lot better. Both are bottled up to one degree or another by Israeli walls and fences, their economic prospects are poor, and they are ruled by corrupt and incompetent leaders. It must have long ago occurred to any thinking Palestinian that they state they aspire to will probably be a schlepper like those others in the Arab world. It’s not the stuff dreams are made of, just more of the same without the occupation.
But there is a big difference between Gaza and the West Bank and terms of the day-to-day lives of their inhabitants, and that is their economic condition.
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Same Palestine, different worlds
Officially the West Bank and Gaza are a single Palestine, but economically speaking they are as different worlds. Economic growth in the West Bank has slowed, but in the first nine months of last year it was a respectable 2.4% while in Gaza it was just 0.5%, which means it fell sharply on a per capita basis.
The West Bank’s jobless rate was 18% but in Gaza it's 44%, the highest in the world according to the World Bank. Among Gazans aged 15-29, the unemployment rate is 61%, even though that statistic doesn't include the large numbers of young who have given up and don't even register for unemployment any more.
The West Bank still has something of a functioning economy, with businesses paying salaries, the option of employment in Israel, and a certain amount of construction and retail trade. In Gaza, on the other hand, economic activity has all but ground to a halt. Gazans depend on aid money not just for their basic needs but for whatever employment there is.
When the aid spigot is on, the economy gives the appearance of functioning, as was the case in the years after 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. In 2016, GDP grew 8% as $400 million in aid flowed in; in 2017, the aid was just $55 million.
The aid has enabled those in Israel who want to minimize the human cost https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/lieberman-contradicts-idf-there-s-no-humanitarian-crisis-in-gaza-1.5790605 of the blockade, like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to point correctly to figures on healthcare and education that show Gaza isn’t all that desperate.
But that misses the main point, which is that Gaza has become a place where there’s nothing to do.
The daily preoccupation in the rest of the world, earning a living, whether you are at the top or bottom of the economic ladder, doesn’t occur in Gaza.
The New York Times captured all that in a profile of a single protestor, Saber al-Gerim. Twenty-years-old and the unemployed son of a beggar, he has no political affiliations. But the protests offer him a chance to barbecue with friends late into the night, sleep late most mornings and make himself useful while singing songs of enmity all afternoon. “It doesn’t matter to me if they shoot me or not,” he told The Times. “Death or life — it’s the same thing.”
Or the Reuters profile of Suhaib, Shadi and Ahmed al-Waloud, three Gazans who have made their living since childhood scavenging through garbage for plastic to sell to recycling plants. It isn’t much of way to start on life, and with economic activity all but paralyzed, prices for second-hand plastic have plunged 80%. When they find any. “Nowadays there is not much work. People are not throwing away a lot of plastic,” Suhaib told Reuters.
Gaza has crashed through the stage of ordinary economic distress where protests and violence can erupt as an expression of political anger, much less hopes and dreams. Instead, violence has become a statement of existential despair and boredom.
It’s not a problem that more international aid can address – indeed, it may be contributing to the problem, however good the aims of the donors are. Nor is it a problem that Israel can solve by opening up the borders to more traffic in goods. Solving it requires a return to a degree of economic normalcy, a place where people are at least employed, which is the foundation of humankind’s day-to-day life.
This is not to say the Palestinian nationalism is a pastime for people who have nothing else to do. The persistence of the Palestinian idea for decades in the face of successive defeats should be proof enough that it is as real as Jewish nationalism. But it does explain how Palestinianism expresses itself in anarchic violence and a seemingly cavalier willingness to risk death. It's a warning to Israel about the fire it is playing with by ignoring it.