The rate of unemployment in the occupied Palestinian territories has reached through the roof - 31.1% in the first quarter of 2006. Palestinian academics are concerned, even as they quibble over methodologies and exact figures. The Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) held its annual conference on the 13th of November at Birzeit University to discuss this problem. Unfortunately, very little by way of original ideas came out of this conference. What is sorely needed is consensus over a bold governmental policy that deals squarely with the current major cause of unemployment - Israel’s closing of its labor market, which at one time absorbed as many as 200,000 Palestinian workers.
An indication as to why nothing helpful came out of this conference is in the title of one of the papers: “Unemployment in the Palestinian Territory: Reality and Strategy to Alleviate it!” The studious absence of the word “occupied” before “territory” reflects the weird politics at play behind sponsored research in the oPt (in this case by German funds). Such funding imposes political restrictions in order to reinforce the general pretense or wishful thinking that the Palestinian Authority is just like any other government; it simply must get its act together, must ensure “some kind of planning in the budgeting process” (to quote one of the recommendations in the paper), and development is sure to follow.
What is needed is a new kind of approach and a new kind of research û one that is driven by a well-defined Palestinian political/economic strategy û in other words, a Palestinian political economic program. The Israeli “disengagement” plan from Gaza included a resolve to reduce the number of Gazans working in Israel to zero by 2008. Is this good or bad for Palestinians from a political standpoint and for the long run? If the political answer is “yes”, then the Palestinians are in need of research that shows how economic growth and wellbeing can be achieved with the Israeli labor market taken out of the equation. What must Palestinians do? How can aid be focused on achieving economic prosperity and job creation without having to rely on the Israeli labor market or Israeli ports? What are the alternatives? How can the international community be enjoined to help Palestinians carry this alternative out?
Although some participants in the MAS conference nostalgically brought up the 1999 economic performance of the oPt as an example of how healthy growth had been achieved in the political atmosphere prior to Al Aqsa uprising, they failed to mention that such growth was unaccompanied by any real development. As articulated by the political economist Sara Roy, the Palestinian economy under the Oslo Accords meant the “de-development” of the Palestinian economy through its integration into the Israeli economy.
Palestinians must develop an indigenous economy. Clearly, if the Palestinians are to have an economically viable independent state, they need economic as well as social, political and cultural autonomy. Where is the MAS research on how to achieve such economic autonomy?
The idea of the Paris protocol was built on the integration of the Palestinian economy with the Israeli economy. What this integration meant in practice, and what the Paris protocol allowed to happen is the following: “Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land and water, prohibitions on Palestinian land and water-use planning, prohibitions on the development of financial and credit institutions, low levels of government investment in economic and social infrastructures, restrictions on research and training, restrictions on foreign trade and the lack of protection from Israeli imports, and limitations on the legal and regulatory system, e.g., in the process of industrial and commercial licensing, and agricultural production planning.”
Before the Paris protocol, the Palestinian economy had been under direct control of Israel for 26 years, being dependent on Israel and vulnerable to the occupying power’s “security needs” and strategic plans. During that time, Israel collected more taxes from the Palestinians than it invested in the oPt and left the Palestinian economy weak and “structurally disfigured”: Between 1972 and 1990, structural unemployment in the oPt was “chronic in that the domestic economy was unable to absorb its own labor force.”
Where is the Palestinian research that will posit a different way of doing things? Since free-form occupation has failed, since the Paris protocol has failed, and since the Palestinians’ political goal is clearly an “independent” state (Wednesday, November 15, the PA celebrates “independence Day” in the oPt), why is there no research that shows how an independent economy could be achieved in cooperation with Jordan and Egypt, for example, rather than with Israel?
Israel is building its wall, it has closed its labor market to Palestinians, it has expropriated as much Palestinian land as it could, it has divided the occupied territories into isolated pockets, it’s ready to leave the Palestinians to their own devices. Where is the Palestinian economic plan that will turn its back on Israel and look to the Arab world for cooperation? What are the alternative mechanisms and measures to a quasi-customs union between Israel and the occupied territories?
If the international community is really invested in seeing a viable independent Palestinian state emerge, it must be prevailed upon to support bold research into restructuring economic relations between the Palestinian and Israel.
Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.