Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Middle East tour concluded without concrete results, and unity talks between Fatah and Hamas remain at a standstill, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian political compromise appears bleaker than ever. But Palestinian lives and livelihoods should no longer be held hostage to the reigning diplomatic stagnation.
It has been more than six months since the United States and its European allies imposed an economic embargo on the democratically elected Hamas-led government. Recent media reports have detailed the alarming economic, social and humanitarian consequences of this blockade for Palestinian society. While international relief organizations have warned of a humanitarian crisis should external funding not resume, they neglect to explain the history, context and likely outcomes of the impending emergency.
It has been six years since Israel tightened its system of checkpoints and closures on the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem at the start of the second intifada. Palestinians’ income has deflated and their meager savings depleted by years of economic suffocation. Unemployment, poverty and disease are spreading, and signals of incipient social breakdown abound. This is the kindling of conflagrations to come.
The financial siege on the Palestinian Authority is particularly devastating because Palestinians have been forced by the Israeli occupation into almost complete dependence on foreign aid for growth, development and survival. Neither the state economy nor family budgets can become self-sustaining when an external power wields near-absolute control over the movement of people and goods.
While the Israeli government claims security concerns to justify prohibitions on Palestinian movement, human rights groups like B’Tselem have found that the closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, for example, serves as a blatant means of collective punishment. There are numerous documented cases recounting Israeli soldiers’ abuse of Palestinians at checkpoints. During the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, many Palestinians reported being forced to denounce the Hezbollah leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, before they were allowed to pass. Such behavior has little to do with Israeli state security, and everything to do with the bullying and intimidation from an occupying power.
Now that teachers, school administrators and other civil servants are striking to protest the embargo on their Palestinian Authority-paid salaries, students’ educations are likewise impeded. UNICEF reports that the majority of the 1,726 Palestinian public schools are either partially or completely closed. Meanwhile, increasing poverty and persistent checkpoints are dissolving the social ties that sustain people. The World Bank predicts that in 2006 Palestinian GDP will suffer a 27 percent decline. Families can no longer afford the cost of transportation to visit one another, and petty crime is on the rise.
According to the sanctions’ logic, Palestinians will be starved into demanding that their government fulfill the conditions imposed by the international community. The ill-concealed goal of such tactics is to cause Hamas to lose favor with constituents for whom they are unable to provide. However, many in the Hamas government were imprisoned before they could try their hand at governing. As such, many Palestinians have looked past ideological differences to stand by the party, believing that their democratically elected representatives should have a chance to succeed or fail according to their own merits or missteps.
These years of economic suffocation will undoubtedly produce an even more resentful population. In a few years, those who are youth now, when food is scarce and education impossible, will grow into leaders. The lesson they will have learned is that suffering for the sake of democracy brings only punishment.
If funding and the ability to move and work are not restored now, it will not be long until the world finds out what alternative system the young people raised in these desperate circumstances might develop. Lifting the siege on the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society is the necessary first step-but only the first-toward removing the Israeli occupation that is the root of Palestinians’ economic woes and the source of insecurity for themselves, the Israelis and the international community.