UN body: Palestinians under “economic siege”

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli forces the previous day in the West Bank city of Qalqilia, 30 August 2007. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

BRUSSELS, 31 August (IPS) - Poverty in the Palestinian territories has reached “unprecedented levels” because they have been held under an “economic siege” for almost seven years, a United Nations body has found.

During 2006 the number of Palestinians living in “deep poverty” almost doubled to more than 1 million. Some 46 percent of public sector employees do not have enough food to meet their basic needs, with 53 percent of households in Gaza reporting that their incomes declined in the last year by more than half.

This data is contained in a report, released 30 August, by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

It stated that an ostensible Israeli policy of “separating” the Palestinian authorities from Arab and world markets by restricting the movement of people and goods has “squeezed the economy to a size smaller than a decade ago.”

The Palestinians’ reliance on imports as a proportion of their gross domestic product rose to 86 percent last year — up from 75 percent in 2005, equating to the loss of 500 million dollars to the economy.

UNCTAD also complained that Israel declined to hand over more than 800 million dollars in tax revenues it had purportedly collected for the Palestinian Authority during 2006. Because of this refusal — the second since 2002 — the authorities’ revenues shrank to under 600 million dollars, half what they were in 2005.

The report’s publication coincided with a UN-sponsored conference on resolving the Middle East conflict in Brussels.

Controversially, the conference, which featured campaigners from the international Palestinian solidarity movement, was described as anti-Israel in some press reports.

Yet this allegation was dismissed by Paul Badji, a Senegalese diplomat who chairs the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. “It is not anti-Israel to defend the rights of Palestinians,” he said.

Leila Shahid, delegate general of Palestine to the European Union, reminded the conference that it is 40 years since Israel began “the longest occupation in contemporary history.”

Delivering a statement on behalf of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, she said that by setting up 550 permanent and mobile checkpoints, Israel has turned the West Bank into “a group of isolated cantons, while over 11,000 Palestinians, including elected representatives and municipal council members, languish in prison, and targeted assassinations continue.”

Pierre Galand from the European Coordination of Committees and Associations for Palestine said he did not believe that the US President George W. Bush and his administration could “do peace a favor by granting 30 billion dollars of military aid to Israel, an increase of about a quarter of the American military aid to the Israeli state for the next ten years.

“We do not believe either that Germany aided peace in the Middle East when delivering in August 2006, during the war against Lebanon, two submarines with nuclear capacity and a 4,500 kilometers radius of action,” he added.

But Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the UN, welcomed efforts by Washington to convene a Middle East peace conference.

“There is no question that the US is a very powerful country and very influential in our region,” he told IPS. “Therefore, its participation in brokering a conference for the autumn could possibly be very constructive. It could help to get all the parties to the conflict to move in the right direction.”

Jamal Juma, coordinator of the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign in Jerusalem, strongly denounced the 760 kilometer “security fence” that Israel has been constructing in the West Bank. This barrier is being constructed in defiance of the International Court of Justice. In 2004, the Hague-based court declared that the wall flouted international law by infringing on the rights of the Palestinians.

“What Israel is creating on the ground is a ghetto system worse than the apartheid system in South Africa,” Juma said.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein from the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions pointed out that both South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have drawn parallels between the plight of the Palestinians and that of their country’s black majority under apartheid.

She urged an international boycott of Israel similar to that which led many governments to impose economic sanctions against South Africa during the 1980s.

Clare Short, the former secretary for international development in the British government, said that Israel has razed 18,000 Palestinian homes since 1967 and that “each demolition is a war crime.”

Short noted that a free trade agreement between Israel and the European Union contains clauses relating to respect for human rights. She asked why these provisions have not been invoked “to insist on Israeli compliance with international law.”

New York-based Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, a spokesman for Jews United Against Zionism, said that the conduct of Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories is helping foment anti-Semitism. He also took issue with Israeli politicians who cite the Holocaust to defend attacks on Palestinians, which they claim are necessary to protect Israel’s security.

“The state of Israel is not doing Jews a favor,” he told IPS. “My grandparents died in Auschwitz and it is wrong to dig them up and use them to oppress the Palestinian people. They should not be used as a pawn.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.