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Occupied Arab World

Politicians talk about economics in West Bank while Ghazzans prepare for another attack

Ahmad Musa

In recent months, Muslims around the world have watched with consternation as Israel has tightened its economic blockade of Ghazzah, subjecting its people to intense hardship, while Western powers have done next to nothing to stop them, despite the fact that the use of starvation and deprivation as a weapon of war is explicitly forbidden by international law.

Last month, we had the even more astonishing sight of a lavish international conference in Bethlehem, in the south of the occupied West Bank, at which hundreds of businessmen and investors from around the world gathered to discuss joint business ventures in the West Bank. The three-day Palestine Investment Conference was opened on May 21 by Palestinian “president” Mahmoud Abbas, who appealed for investment “in Palestine and in peace”.

The fact that the conference (and the investment that it is hoped will come as a result) was part of the West’s plan to reward Abbas and the West Bank for co-operating with Israel, in contrast to the punishment being meted out to Hamas and the Palestinians of Ghazzah, was emphasised by the presence at the conference of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who is now an envoy to the Middle East for the international quartet that is supposed to be overseeing the peace process. He has pushed an “economy first” approach to reaching a settlement in Palestine, and claims to have been pushing for Israel to reduce the restrictions that have made day-to-day life, let along foreign investment, impossible for people in the West Bank. It is a measure of his lack of success that, despite occasional high-profile announcements that Israel is to reduce the number of road-blocks in the West Bank, there are actually more now than at any time in the past, as acknowledged by a recent UN report.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Blair was criticised by local journalists and commentators, who explicitly accused him of trying to bribe Abbas and the PA into making concessions toIsrael. Several pointed out the obscenity of such a conference in Bethlehem while Palestinians were starving in Ghazzah.

Some of the most outspoken attacks came from Palestinian economist Adel Samarah. He was quoted in al-Ahram Weekly as saying that “during the Oslo era, they told us that Gaza would become the Singapore of the Middle East and the West Bank would become like Hong Kong. What actually happened is that Gaza became a concentration camp and the West Bank sank deeper and deeper in the quagmire of occupation.”

He also attacked the PA and its leaders, calling them “a gang of money-grabbing careerists who are sacrificing Palestinian national interests for the sake of their immediate financial interests” and accusing them of “pimping Arab investors to normalise Israel while Israel is decapitating Palestine and its people.”

Despite these attacks on the conference, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said at the end of it that about $1.4 billion had been pledged for economic development projects in theWest Bank, which would create up to 35,000 new jobs and include the construction of a new Palestinian town near Ramallah. Fayyad also argued that the question of economic development of Palestine was entirely separate from political issues: “This is not an economic conflict that requires an economic solution. This is a political conflict that requires a political solution. And I assure you that we won’t meet any political demands attached to efforts to revive our economy.”

Such pious intentions are likely to come to nothing, however, considering that all economic activity in the West Bank is dependent on the actions of Israel. No investment can reach the area without Israel’s co-operation, and no businesses can operate without Israeli approval. The successful translation of these $1.4 billion of pledges into development in Palestine will depend almost entirely on Israel’s blessing, therefore, and that will not easily be obtained, certainly not without substantial concessions in crucial areas such as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, and the status of Jerusalem.

The result was that, for all the fine words and intentions, little concrete is likely to change as a result of the conference in the foreseeable future. Although much was made of the number of Arab businessmen who attended the conference, Khalid Ameyrah, writing in al-Ahram Weekly (May 29), pointed out that many Palestinian expatriates in particular had been prevented from attending for political reasons, and that many of those who did come said that they only came to use the opportunity to meet relatives and friends, or to pray at the Haram Sharif in al-Quds.

While Abbas and his colleagues play politics in the West Bank, however, the real leaders of the Palestinians have been engaged in more substantive efforts to improve conditions for the Palestinians, while maintaining the principles of their struggle for freedom. In Ghazzah, there have in recent weeks been both signs that Israel is preparing for another military offensive against the besieged territory, and indications that some Israelis and their allies may be seeking a more substantial agreement with Hamas than the shaky truce that has been in place for recent weeks.

The Palestinians’ preparations for another Israeli offensive have been based on the belligerence of Israeli statements in recent weeks. As Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, met with Hamas leaders in early May, hoping to turn the Egyptian-brokered truce into something more substantial, by linking it to new Israeli conditions such as the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert warned that “the hour of reckoning” had arrived for Hamas, and acting Israeli president Haim Ramon threatened a series of major operations aimed at toppling Hamas.

The fact that this belligerence has shown no sign of being converted into action, however, appears to be down to reluctance on the part of the Israeli military to enter Ghazzah again. In a major change of its position, the army leadership has been letting it be publicly known in Israel that it is not in favour of any major military operation in Ghazzah, based on its previous experiences there. This is seen as being aimed to put pressure on the political leaders, who, the military fear, may commit them to further large-scale and costly operations in Ghazzah for domestic political reasons, without any prospect of the military operations achieving the objectives declared for them.

Last month, dozens of retired generals, intellectuals and commentators addressed an open letter to Olmert and defence minister Ehud Barak, demanding that the government open negotiations with Hamas, arguing that further military action would achieve nothing except a waste of lives on both sides before negotiations would have to be opened in any case.

The problem is that Israel’s record suggests that whenever it realises that it has to talk with its enemies, it first launches a massive military attack in order to intimidate its enemies, and so that it can claim to be talking from a position of strength rather of weakness. If, as appears likely, this is the real reason for the apparently contradictory messages coming out of Israel, Ghazzah is most probably in for another very painful experience indeed.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 4

Jumada' al-Ula' 27, 14292008-06-01

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