With intensity unknown since the second intifada and at a daily cost of $12 million to the Hebron economy alone, Israel is cracking down on the West Bank in its search for three missing Israeli settler youth. The result is a growing Palestinian chorus: Stop Israeli-Palestinian “security coordination.”
Palestinian Authority security forces have stepped aside while the Israeli military spreads out in West Bank cities and villages with little regard for the zones of nominal security jurisdiction allocated to the PA under the 1993 Oslo accords. Since the second intifada, however, security coordination has been the linchpin of the rebuilding of PA security forces at the behest of Israel and the George W. Bush administration. Since the mid-2000s, indeed, the primary purpose of the PA forces has been to police Palestinian dissent, while leaving Israeli forces a free hand to operate throughout occupied territory.
The overt popular disgust at the images and implications of this coordination is understandable, especially since the PA rules of engagement since the second intifada prevent PA forces from protecting the population from Israeli measures, including arrest, house demolition and firing on demonstrators. But in the din of the demands for immediate suspension of coordination, nobody, including the PA, appears to have a prescription for what comes next. There is no Plan B in the event of violent Palestinian confrontation with Israel and an ensuing breakdown in the “normal” cycle of life and spread of “lawlessness” akin to that witnessed in the closing chapters of the first and second intifadas. Nor does it seem to be explicitly recognized that the end of security coordination effectively sounds the death knell for the entire Oslo framework, which, though discredited and unilaterally managed by Israel, continues today as the de facto and de jure scaffolding of the Palestinian political system and the functioning of PA institutions. This most recent reversal for the notion of “Palestinian statehood preparedness” raises the question, again, of whether Oslo is dead and buried, with the concerned parties merely awaiting the appropriate moment and rebalancing of forces on the ground to announce that fact to the world.
While security coordination is the favorite target of loathers of Oslo today, for a time, when the 2012 financial crisis hit consumers’ pocketbooks hard, it was the economic component of Oslo (the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations) that was the butt of popular ire. In some ways, the popular demands of those days for abrogation of the Paris Protocol made more sense, and perhaps were more feasible, than the present expectations of dramatic departures from a PA that is bound to Oslo until further notice. Indeed, security separation from Israel would invite a range of unilateral Israeli economic measures that would most likely increase separation between the two economies and the misery of Palestinian households dependent on those economic links, including 150,000 PA employees, some 70,000 Palestinian workers in Israel, and thousands of small businesses and industries around the West Bank that rely on cross-border trade.
Without preparation and practical alternatives for asserting some territorial contiguity, keeping the economy afloat and resisting the pressure of Israeli retaliatory measures, security coordination should logically be the last component of Oslo to be dismantled, if indeed a Palestinian national decision is taken to repudiate Oslo and start afresh. Whichever part of the 20-year old Oslo framework is first to be challenged, any change (nominal or effective) will have major consequences for all of society. Therefore, dismantling Oslo, whether incrementally or in one fell swoop, is a project that needs the backing of broad democratic consensus to be achieved within the framework of PLO institutions or possibly a revamped form of Palestinian “national” governance better suited to twenty-first-century realities.
Is the Palestinian economy ready to pay the price of separation, even if the present showdown does not lead to the collapse of law and order? For the moment, by all appearances, the answer seems to be no.
Had the PA inched away from the Paris Protocol in response to the 2012 protests, and mobilized international support for a new economy with sovereign functions beyond its current confines, then some of the pieces of an alternative might already be in place today. But, then as now, policymakers appeared so wedded to (and dependent upon) the status quo that any break with it could be expected only from the Israeli side.
From a strategic angle, Palestinian national economic security requires an end to Israeli domination (and/or trade, fiscal and monetary separation). But the cost of economic separation must be carefully calculated at different levels, many of them unseen or unrecorded, regardless of the fate of security coordination.
One largely ignored, but increasingly significant, economic bond with Israel may be witnessed on any given Saturday, when as many as 4,500 cars full of Palestinian Israeli citizens from the Galilee and northern Triangle cross into the Jenin governorate for weekly shopping trips for a range of cheaper goods (food, clothes, household items) and services (car repairs, dentistry, tourism). These cash purchases are roughly estimated at $500,000 — the city of Jenin’s pocket money for the week. Similar (though smaller) flows reach Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Jericho and Hebron, not to mention Jerusalem, and are estimated in total at well over $300 million annually (mainly in cash). As many as 2,500 of the 7,000 students at the American University of Jenin are Palestinian citizens of Israel, while some 1,500 of the students at Hebron University are young women from the Naqab desert.
Such historical links have reemerged in a powerful new form that belies conventional wisdom about the desirability of or need for separation from the Israeli economy. In fact, such anecdotal evidence helps to better define exactly which axes of dependency on the Israeli economy need to be broken, and along which paths Palestinian Arab economic reconnection and integration should be the main goal.
Two-staters and one-staters alike, please take note: Under the current configuration, however adverse the conditions may appear for an independent Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the question of reconnection between the Arab economies in Israel and the West Bank is more complex than is thought. The phenomenon of existing connections not only constitutes a strategic asset for all Palestinians, and a good omen for the prospects for surviving and maybe again flourishing in their homeland, but more immediately should take its place in the debate on the pros and cons of economic separation and security coordination.