Blair’s misguided economic optimism

The Quartet’s Middle East envoy Tony Blair speaks during a joint press conference with Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes after his visit to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 2007. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)

The Quartet’s Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, wanted to raise $5.6 billion US at the donor conference in Paris in December 2007. Since 1999 the per capita gross domestic product in occupied Palestine has declined by 40 percent. As a result Palestinians are getting poorer and 65 percent live below the poverty line. To give the hard hit economy a boost, Blair came up with a cure of ten “quick impact projects.” The World Bank has another opinion: pouring money into the occupied Palestinian territory will do little to revive the economy unless the occupation is ended. Instead, some of Blair’s proposed projects are firmly rooted in the structure of the occupation.

Promotion of tourism in Bethlehem

Blair wishes to revive the tourism sector in Bethlehem. It will require “removing existing obstacles to facilitate access; and developing a support program for the Palestinian tourism sector.” Palestine is a “safe destination” for tourists to visit, said Blair on 12 December 2007 when he spoke to journalists at a joint press conference with the Palestinian minister for tourism in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem is a safe and good place to come.” Is this typical of Blair’s optimism? The UN security system has marked the entire West Bank as phase III, which means that traveling is only allowed for necessary missions. UN staff are not allowed to take their spouses and children with them.

Victor Batarseh, mayor of Bethlehem, said in a speech early December, “The cradle of our Lord Jesus Christ has turned into a big prison.” He added, “This discriminating wall, besides isolating our town from the outside world and depriving Bethlehem from any future growth, snakes its way deep inside our municipal borders … closing the historic and main entrance of Bethlehem.” Ironically, the French government donated $587,624 in 2007 for the Bethlehem Christmas lights, as reported by the International Middle East Media Center on 19 November.

Before 2000, the year the second intifada broke out, nearly one million pilgrims and tourists used to visit Bethlehem. The Palestinian economy had the capacity to harbor all those visitors in the hotels that are now empty most of the year. The number of visitors has declined to about 10 percent of the normal rate. Most of the tourists that now visit Bethlehem go to the Church of the Nativity and straight back in their buses to Jerusalem. The trips are organized by Israeli tour operators. Increasing the number of tourists to Bethlehem will in the first place benefit the Israeli economy.

Agro-business in the Jordan Valley

Blair’s 34-page plan includes “the establishment of an agro-industrial park in the West Bank and facilitating transportation of goods from the West Bank to, among others, Gulf States via Jordan. The Japanese government is working with the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan on the ‘Corridor for Peace and Prosperity’ Initiative.” The development programs funded by USAID (the US development agency), Spain, the Netherlands and the European Commission “can possibly be enlarged to support agro-business development the following season,” according to Blair. Blair’s ‘corridor of peace and prosperity’ fits within Shimon Peres’ request to the British foreign secretary in September 2006 to support a plan for economic development in a 250-mile corridor from the Red Sea to the Syrian border. Peres wanted a program of economic growth to move in parallel with peace talks.

The Japanese project for the agro-industrial park in the Jericho area that is mentioned in Blair’s plan completely ignores the needs of the Palestinian farmers in the Jordan Valley. The farmers used to run small-scale farms, but have been confronted with serious obstacles of the Israeli occupation. Big parts of the Palestinian Jordan Valley have been declared a “closed military zone”. Palestinian farmers have no access to their lands in the military zones, while the Israeli agro-businesses are allowed to operate in these areas. Much of the Palestinian fertile land in the Jordan Valley has been confiscated by Israeli agro-businesses, leaving Palestinian farmers little choice than to seek employment in the settlement farms as low-wage labour force. The Palestinian farmers that have been able to continue to work on their farms are confronted with restrictions on movements of workers and goods, which have made export from agricultural produce from the Jordan Valley almost impossible.

It is obvious that the construction of an agro-business park near Jericho will not solve the daily problems faced by farmers in the Jordan Valley. The mayors of the Jordan Valley villages have been clear about what is needed: the removal of obstacles to Palestinian farmers and the provision of basic services to the villages. One has to bear in mind that Israel does not allow many of the villages to get connected to the electricity grid.

The Japanese project for the Jordan Valley that Blair embraces proposes Palestinian collaboration with “migrant firms.” By using the term “migrant firm,” the Japanese try to mask the reality of the illegal settlement businesses. Of course the Israeli businesses want to operate in the West Bank and cooperate with Palestinian exporters in order to gain access to markets in the Arab world that they cannot reach with with their goods “made in Israel.”

It is obvious that the plans of Blair to support the development of a “corridor of peace and prosperity” is a guarantee that Israel will have access to a corridor of land between the Golan and the Red Sea in a post-occupation era.

Industrial parks

The development of industrial parks is another example of Blair’s quick impact projects. The parks should “attract [foreign] investment and create sustainable employment and income generation.” The Ankara Forum, an Israeli, Palestinian and Turkish business initiative, developed a project proposal for business parks in Tarqumiya/Hebron and Jalameh/Jenin. A participant in the Ankara Forum, renowned Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, said in 2004, “It is better to occupy people with work rather than let them turn to terrorism.”

Blair writes, “The creation of the industrial park and external infrastructure will generate immediate employment during construction.” Regarding possible benefit to Israel, “The development of a secure industrial site will allow Israel to continue to benefit from the synergies between the Israeli and Palestinian economies.” Indeed, Israel will benefit from the industrial parks which will operate in tax-free zones, where businesses will not pay any taxes to the Palestinian Authority.

After the 1993 Oslo accords Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed on a plan to create nine industrial estates along the Green Line in the West Bank and Gaza. From Jenin in the north to Rafah in the south, the estates were to provide jobs for some 100,000 Palestinians. The plans for the industrial sites were shelved during the second intifada. With the construction of the wall in 2003 the idea of industrial parks was revived. That Israel has a lot to gain is illustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “The industrial estates resolve both the problem of Palestinian unemployment and that of the high cost of labor for Israeli businesses, which are currently relocating to the Far East, and they do it without risk, since the Palestinians won’t be crossing the Green Line.” [1]

Palestinian activist Omar Barghouthi commented at that time, “These projects didn’t work after the Oslo accords and they won’t work now. It’s just an exercise in hiding the horrible truth. These Palestinian businessmen aren’t concerned about the unemployment problems of their countrymen; they’re just looking after their own interests. This plan only makes sense from an Israeli point of view. It’s a reinforcement of the apartheid in which Palestinians can be no more than a nation of slaves. But it won’t work.” [2]

Palestinian counterpart

The plans Blair presented have the support of the Palestinian Authority. Blair and the European Union have chosen Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian people, in contradiction with the outcome of the elections of early 2006. Recently Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti said in an interview that “Those among Palestinian ‘leaders’ who are colluding with the occupation are certainly part of the problem, not the solution. Although I am very critical of Hamas for different reasons, I recognize that a majority of Palestinians under occupation democratically elected them to govern and to lead the struggle for freedom and self-determination. The world has to respect this democratic Palestinian choice, although only one-third of the Palestinian people participated in these elections. The remaining two-thirds, Palestinian refugees around the world and Palestinian citizens of Israel, were not even considered.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during his opening speech at the donor conference in Paris, “Israelis and Palestinians know what goal they are aiming for. We need to let them negotiate. We, the international community, should assist them with determination but without dictating, by giving them our support and above all our trust.”

Europe is reluctant to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law like the ongoing construction of the wall and Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land, the transfer of its population to the occupied Palestinian territory and the severe movements restrictions imposed on Palestinians. These violations have a negative impact on the lives of Palestinians and the Palestinian economy. The 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court Justice on the legality of the wall confirmed that Israel as the occupying force should comply with international law and that the international community has the duty to hold Israel to account. However, Europe has chosen to bury its head in the sand by endorsing Blair’s quick impact projects that are firmly rooted in the structure of this occupation. This is not the way to gain the trust of the Palestinian people. Putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation is the way forward.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.

[1] Ma’ariv, 22 September 2003.
[2] No State Has the Right to Exist as a Racist State,” Silvia Cattori, ZNet (15 December 2007). [Editor’s note: this quote was originally wrongly attributed to Mustapha Barghouthi. The Electronic Intifada regrets the error.]

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