Doha meeting explores socio-economic, humanitarian crisis in Palestinian territory

International community emphasizing humanitarian issues over political issues

DOHA - The unrelenting Israeli imperatives to accommodate its territorial design gave rise to a noticeable shift in the way the international community framed Israeli-Palestinian relations, Sara Roy of the Harvard Center for Middle East Studies said this afternoon at the first plenary session of the United Nations Seminar on Assistance to the Palestinian People in Doha, Qatar.

The international community now emphasized humanitarian issues over political issues, she said. It was not surprising that Israel transferred revenues with conditions that the money be only used for humanitarian purposes.

This afternoon’s session, part of a two-day meeting sponsored by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, heard presentations by experts on the socio-economic emergency in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

The Head of the United Nations Development Programme’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People, Khaled Abdel Shafi, said the Israelis had made life miserable for the Palestinian people while preventing the Palestinian Authority from achieving or receiving credit for any positive results. By their actions they created the perfect environment for Hamas to win the elections.

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Ahmad Tibi said the international community could not apply double standards to the Israelis and Palestinians. What was applicable to one should be applicable to the other.

Other panellists this afternoon were the Chief of the Information and Advocacy Unit at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem, Allegra Pacheco, and Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Salam Fayyad.

Tomorrow morning, in Plenary II, experts will review the international response to the needs of the Palestinian people: United Nations support; international donor assistance, including the Temporary International Mechanism; and the role of regional donors.

Plenary I: Socio-economic, humanitarian emergency in Occupied Palestinian Territory

The impact of the occupation on the Palestinian economy; the socio-economic decline of the Gaza Strip; and the plight of the most vulnerable — Palestinian women, children and the elderly — were the main areas of focus.

SALAM FAYYAD, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said the meeting was taking place against the backdrop of the extreme hardship being experienced by the Palestinian people. There had been a significant intensification of closures and financial restrictions imposed on Palestinians. There had been a decline in the gross domestic product (GDP) of 15 per cent on an annualized basis. It is estimated that the GDP will have declined about 20 per cent during the year 2006, the deepest recession in the Palestinian economy since 1967. Also there had been a major increase in unemployment. The International Labour Organization statistics did not reflect the real unemployment number. Those who no longer applied for jobs were dropped from the statistics. It was estimated that 70 per cent in the West Bank and Gaza were living under the poverty level.

The number of checkpoints in the West Bank rose to well over 500, an increase of 40 per cent in a year and a half, and Gaza was pretty much closed completely, he said. Mobility restrictions seriously impacted development. Financial aid for budgetary purposes had increased in 2006. One of the consequences of the restrictions was that it was difficult to monitor funds. Since the economy had declined in 2006, it was assumed that the clearance revenues had decreased. Israel deducted a certain portion of the revenues for services like electricity. The increase in foreign aid had offset the decline in clearance revenues. Restrictions on banking caused banks to fear that the Palestinian Authority would become insolvent. It was clear that there had been a decline in resource availability in the period from 2005 to 2006. Government spending had declined by 35 per cent in 2006. On the other hand, there had been an increase in Government spending in 2005 over 2004.

He called attention to the increase in private investment and a drop in public investment. There had also been a drop in the quality of public investment. Money in the private sector translated to job creation. The reorientation of foreign aid away from development to humanitarianism was not the quality necessary for higher growth.

AHMAD TIBI, Deputy Speaker of Knesset, Head of Arab Movement for Change Party, Tel Aviv, said the Seminar was devoted to the adverse effects of the siege. He called attention to the human losses, the high number of martyrs and injured; and the strangulation of the Palestinian people — movement restrictions and the end of freedom of trade, thus preventing even a slight economic recovery. In the West Bank, there were roads earmarked for Israeli settlers and others set aside for Palestinians. The international community had remained idle in the face of the creation of an apartheid regime in the West Bank. The barrier wall made the territories a virtual prison. The agricultural sector faced $282 million in losses.

Palestinian industry was also hit hard. The Palestinian economy remained unable to be self-sufficient and autonomous. Israel recently had been denying Palestinians access to their jobs. Children who formerly could go to school in 2 minutes now needed 40 minutes because of the wall. The international community was punishing the Palestinian people because of the outcome of the elections although it was the democratic choice of the people.

International assistance came in various forms, either official or private, he said. Among other things, the assistance provided funds for education and created more job opportunities for women and their integration into the economy. But it failed to erase the impact on the economic situation. In many respects it was not earmarked for productive projects.

He went on to say that not everything was linked to whether or not funds could be transferred. The citizenry law had been amended so that it banned marriage between Palestinians on two sides of the wall. Different rules applied to Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians were also prevented from marrying citizens of what were deemed to be enemy countries — like Syria, he said. In 20 or 25 years, there might be equality in the numbers of Palestinians and Jews in Israel. That caused considerable concern among Israelis. The international community could not apply double standards. What was applicable to one must be applicable to the other. The siege must be lifted, and Palestinians must be compensated for all the losses they had suffered under the occupation.

ALLEGRA PACHECO, Chief, Information and Advocacy Unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jerusalem , said the number of people receiving food assistance had increased by 10 times. Her Office analysed the situation in terms of access, the fiscal crisis and the protection of civilians which was an increasing concern. Child deaths had increased by 200 per cent, and there had been a dramatic rise in injuries. Most of the deaths had been in Gaza, but one could not ignore the West Bank where the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were very active in terms of arrests.

Regarding access, she said there were 69 checkpoints, the majority being in the West Bank. There were 69 road gates that blocked access from villages to main roads. There were also 56 road blocks, as well as 291 earth mounds that affected Palestinians but not Israelis. Road barriers required Palestinians to take a taxi to one side of the earth mound, climb over the mound and take a taxi on the other side. Trucks unloaded their goods and carried them over the mound to waiting trucks. The Jordan valley was virtually closed off from the West Bank. There were also unpredictable “flying” checkpoints which were only for Palestinian cars which were identified by their different license plates. There were barriers that separated Palestinians from Palestinians. To cross through a gate one had to get a permit from the IDF. Forty per cent of agricultural families had not received permits and could not reach their lands.

There was also a question of where the barrier went, she said. It prevented access to water in many places and cut off villages from cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem. About 58 per cent of the barrier has been completed. As an example of the hardships imposed, one city was now cut off from the two towns dependent upon it. While it had formerly taken 10 minutes to access the city, it now took two hours. The Israeli solution was to create underpasses and tunnels for Palestinians. The primary routes were reserved for Israelis. There was an entrenchment of that infrastructure with enormous Israeli investment to make it permanent.

KHALED ABDEL SHAFI, Head of the Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Gaza, said it was no coincidence that 2006 had been described as the worst year in recent Gaza history in terms of socio-economic conditions. When in 2004, Sharon had announced his unilateral withdrawal plan, it had been welcomed by the Quartet and the international community. Yet, there had been a rise in the culture of violence. The killings and the attacks on institutions like public universities showed how the quality of life in the Territory was deteriorating. There was also a rise in criminality. Crimes in 2006 had surpassed the total number of crimes recorded from 1948 to 2005. The resulting increase in emigration was not limited to business people. It was growing among technical and professional people and their families. If that trend was not stopped it would be very difficult to reverse it.

Why did this all happen when everyone thought everything would be good after disengagement, he asked. The disengagement plan had been part of Sharon’s vision of what he wanted to impose on the Palestinian people. The other part of that vision was the barrier. The Israelis had closed the Gaza Strip and delayed the implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access. The Israelis had made life miserable for the Palestinian people while preventing the Palestinian Authority from achieving or receiving credit for any positive results. By their actions, they created the perfect environment for Hamas to win the elections.

He said Gaza was a big prison with prison dynamics where people started to kill and fight each other. The Gaza population had been turned into a population of beggars. Earlier, unemployment rates in Gaza had been at 7 per cent; access was wonderful; and political conditions were improving. Nevertheless, the intifada had occurred. All the things that were occurring then and now were a result of the political crisis. It was time to act before it was too late.

SARA ROY, Research Associate, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, said that, by the time of the second intifada, Israel’s enforced closure policy was entrenched. During the Oslo period there had been a 36 per cent decline in income, a rise in unemployment, poverty and economic deterioration. When the border was closed in 1991 and later more permanently in 1993, no viable economic and political structure could emerge. There had been an intensification of the conflict in the last six years. Eighty-eight per cent of people in Gaza and 55 per cent in the West Bank lived below the poverty level. Add to that the poorly functioning Authority, lack of control among Palestinian policymakers, internecine conflict and the reduction of net aid levels, and it was easy to understand why the economic situation was so dire. Israel was now seeking to preclude the emergence of a State and a viable economic base upon which to build it. It was imposing measures to reduce the Palestinians to a humanitarian problem to which the international community was expected to respond.

She said that over one third of the West Bank was now inaccessible to Palestinians. Fewer than 30 per cent were eligible to apply for permits for movement and fewer than 10 per cent had received permits. Gazans were prohibited from residing in the West Bank. Israel could veto any law passed in the Palestinian Parliament. Those measures impacted the economy directly and indirectly. More and more Israelis were benefiting from the occupation. The integration of the settlement blocks was no longer extraordinary or contentious and was considered normal and desirable by the Israelis. Separation from the Palestinians had become permanent and routine. There was less talk of territorial continuity for Palestinians. The unrelenting Israeli imperatives to accommodate its territorial design had given rise to a noticeable shift in the way the international community framed Israeli-Palestinian relations. They emphasized humanitarian issues over political issues. It was not surprising that Israel transferred revenues with conditions that the money be only used for humanitarian purposes.

She said unilateral disengagement illustrated the shift in Israel’s intentions towards the Palestinians and their territories from one of occupation to one of annexation and imposed sovereignty, a shift that was accepted by the international community following Hamas’ victory and its unwillingness to renounce terror and recognize Israel. Resolution lay ultimately in reciprocity, she said. If Palestinians were offered something in return for what was being demanded of them, the end or the beginning of the end of the occupation, then the process would become mutual and had some hope of achieving meaningful results. The goal should not be to honour previous agreements but to rewrite them. Palestinian and Israeli national and economic rights must be addressed equally and simultaneously. Anything short of that would fail.