Gaza is an economic disaster. GDP is shrinking and the economy is de-developing, in the words of the United Nations. Unemployment is at 42%, electricity is available only for six or seven hours a day, and nearly half the population is defined as food insecure.
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Some wail about the price heroic Palestinians are paying in their battle against a powerful Israeli enemy bent on destroying them. But they’re avoiding a lot of facts that are at variance with that narrative. Even the fact of the economic disaster that is Gaza is debatable.
The statistics, such as they are, aren’t as reliable as the organizations dispensing them make them out to be. In an economy where most business is done off the books, a lot of those “50% unemployed” are in fact working.
The story of Gaza on the brink has been the stuff of media and NGO accounts for years, à la “Three years after its last war with Israel, Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis” (The Independent, August 2017), “Gaza economy ‘on verge of collapse,’ with world’s highest unemployment” (The Guardian, May 2015), “UN: Gaza humanitarian situation ‘dire’” (BBC, July 2014), “Deprived and Endangered: Humanitarian Crisis in the Gaza Strip” (Human Rights Watch, January 2009), “Food shortages, crumbling health services and a water and sewage system close to collapse are all part of the daily misery facing 1.5 million Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza” (NBC News, March 2008) and “Gaza on brink of implosion as aid cut-off starts to bite” (The Guardian, April 2006).
True, Gaza isn’t a Singapore hidden behind a facade of rubble. But even in its current state its human-development levels are about on par with a typical undeveloped economy.
Life expectancy in Gaza is about 74.9 years, which puts it at about the same level as countries like Malaysia and Turkey and not far behind Saudi Arabia. Its figures for hospital beds and doctors per 1,000 people are 1.58 and 1.42 respectively, about average for an undeveloped economy. Infant mortality rates are also about the level of a poor country.
The gap between the dysfunctional economy and the relatively decent figures for health and welfare is a function of aid. In the absence of any way to generate income from labor or enterprise, the United Nations estimates that 80% of Gazans get some kind of assistance.
The role of Israel’s blockade in turning Gaza into a basket case has been thoroughly reported in the media and documented in excruciating detail by countless NGOs.
The state of Gaza
Asked Monday about the state of Gaza following a Haaretz report warning of the impending crisis, Netanyahu deflected the blame to Hamas and its predilection for directing resources to its armed confrontation with Israel over the needs of ordinary Gazans.
Not only is Netanyahu right about Hamas responsibility, he understates it.
Hamas’ raison d’etre is to liberate Palestine. It has no vision about what kind of state Palestine should be, except a kind of retrograde notion that it will resemble what it was before the Jews arrived – a society of good Muslims following traditional values. Hamas does not see a society to build or an economy to develop – only a war of liberation to fight.
From Hamas’ point of view, international aid isn’t there to build a better Gaza, but to keep the population fed, housed and relatively healthy. So if cement arrives from Israel, it’s better spent on new tunnels than on rebuilding housing. Hamas has done nothing to enact policies that support business and employment, much less develop the economy.
Hamas is typical of third-world liberation movements, and we know how they end up. Liberation arrives, and the liberators settle down into positions of power while the economy and the state of human rights steadily deteriorate. Zimbabwe is more typical of the liberation trajectory than Singapore.
Imagine if after the 2005 disengagement, Gaza’s leaders had decided that instead of turning the territory into an armed camp, they would make it a model for a prosperous Palestine. The basic materials were there, including the ability to latch on to the bigger Israeli economy, but there was never any guns-or-greenhouses debate. It was Hamas’ choice to create the vicious circle of rockets and bombings, Israeli blockades and frequent wars.
Alas, Gaza doesn’t offer good raw material for a morality tale.
On Monday, Netanyahu said the long-term solution for Gaza’s distress is demilitarization in exchange for reconstruction.
On paper, that seems like a fair deal, but it has been the Palestinian’ bitter experience over the decades that neither violence nor negotiations do much for them. When Palestinians are shooting, Israel correctly refuses to negotiate, but when they put down their guns, which the Palestinian Authority has done under President Mahmoud Abbas, it’s made very clear to them by Israel that there’s never going to be much to negotiate about. The settlers and their allies don’t want to give up an inch of the West Bank.
This isn’t a defense of armed struggle. Rather, it’s a case for the Zionist model of pre-state Israel of building your hoped-for country, even against long odds and the resistance of a colonial power. It requires patience and persistence, but it’s a far better road to statehood.