Palestinian Socio-Economic Conditions Continue their Steep Decline

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

February 26, 2021

Weeks after President Mahoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced a new round of parliamentary and presidential elections for May and August 2021, regional observers continue to ponder the significance of the move. Some have already cast doubt on the validity of the vote, even though recent developments indicate that more and more parties across the political spectrum have expressed their willingness to compete. Meanwhile, socio-economic indicators across the Occupied Territories continue to worsen, as the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll on the Palestinian economy.

Writing immediately after Hamas and Fatah expressed support for organizing and competing in the May parliamentary elections, Najla Shahwa, a Palestinian author and researcher, in an op-ed for The Daily Sabah, sounded a note of caution regarding the legitimacy of the elections: “Although the new decree has generated a certain level of enthusiasm in Palestinian society, many are doubtful the elections will bring sweeping change. Despite being the first polls in 15 years, some doubt the elections will even take place given the country’s history of failed initiatives due to factors that remain unchanged. Meaningful, democratic elections can only take place if the CEC and other responsible bodies are representative of the people, transparent and independent of improper political influence. The public, including political activists and leaders, must feel assured by the electoral bodies that the will of the voters is expressed through elections.”

Since then, however, various political actors have come out in support of the elections, lending the process credibility. In an important development, Asharq Alawsat reports that The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has also announced its intention to compete: “‘Its central committee held a meeting after which it decided to run in the elections according to its political program’. The PFLP stressed that its participation in the elections ‘does not mean that it is a partner in the consecration of the humiliating and disastrous Oslo Accords’…. For his part, Fatah Central Committee Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub said that his group ‘highly valued’ the PFLP’s decision to participate in the parliamentary election. He expressed hope that the decision would encourage all Palestinians to participate in the ‘democratic process’.”

Yet, there those on the Israeli side who seem determined to derail the political process in the Occupied Territories. For example, Alex Nachumson labels the announcement a “public-relations stunt” and argues in a recent op-ed for Israel Hayom that Israel should not allow the elections to take place if political groups like Hamas and others that call for the destruction of Israel participate: “It’s abundantly clear that the Palestinian elections, called for May, are a farce meant simply to placate the new US administration…. The whole exercise is purely a public-relations stunt. Unfortunately, so far, the main target of the farce – the international community – is buying it…. The State of Israel must not be confused; it has to act independently of international acquiescence…. [I]t must not allow Hamas to take part in the PA elections…. This was a major mistake for which the residents of Israel’s south are still paying. Hamas’s success in those elections emboldened and allowed it, through violence, to establish an Islamist stronghold on Israel’s southern border and – as it has shown repeatedly in the intermittent years – to create a sophisticated rocket arsenal capable of reaching most of the Jewish state. Israel must not make the same mistake.”

However, the Palestinian leadership may have even more pressing matters to address than pushing back against Israeli pressure. The recent passing of the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti spurred Ramzy Baroud, a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle, as well as a regular contributor to Jordan Times, to reflect on the long-standing Palestinian wound of exile: “For Palestinians, exile is not simply the physical act of being removed from their homes and their inability to return. It is not a casual topic pertaining to politics and international law, either. Nor is it an ethereal notion, a sentiment, a poetic verse. It is all of this, combined. The death in Amman of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, an intellectual whose work has intrinsically been linked to exile, brought back to the surface many existential questions: are Palestinians destined to be exiled? Can there be a remedy for this perpetual torment? Is justice a tangible, achievable goal?… Millions of Palestinians continue to live in exile, generation after generation, painstakingly negotiating their individual and collective identities, neither able to return, nor feeling truly whole. These millions deserve to exercise their Right of Return, for their voices to be heard and to be included.”

Meanwhile, according to important finding by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, published by the Palestinian website Al Wafa, the health pandemic coupled with the long-term effects of the Israeli occupation have driven the Palestinian economy further and further into the abyss, thus “describ[ing] the year 2020 as a year of setbacks for the Palestinians, their institutions, and their economy owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented fiscal crisis…. The report, issued by the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) for the upcoming bi-annual virtual meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) on 23 February 2021, notes that almost half of the Palestinian population now needs humanitarian aid, with the protracted humanitarian crisis exacerbated by the pandemic…. The report calls on the international community to support a wide range of humanitarian and development projects, alongside technical assistance, to help the Palestinian Government follow through on its pledges of economic reform.”

Given Israel’s success dealing with the health pandemic, it’s neglect of the Palestinians has not gone unnoticed. Some Israeli voices calling on the Israeli government to come to the aid of the Palestinians. One of those voices is Aviram Shaul, the brother of Oron Shaul, whose body has been held by Hamas since his death in 2014. Shaul, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, points out that Israel can only benefit from the decision to allow vaccines into the Occupied Territories: “Israel is not only a Jewish and democratic state but also a nation founded on the principle of humanism. Wherever a disaster strikes anywhere around the world, Israel is the first to lend its hand in aid, be it Turkey, or Thailand or now the Gaza Strip. The health of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza… should be a top priority for the country’s leadership, beyond the moral, religious and ethical aspects involved. As far as I see it, providing vaccines to the people of the Gaza Strip is not a show of weakness, but of strength. It does not hinder Israel’s security interests, but helps maintain the calm along the southern frontier. It also boosts Israel’s public-relations efforts, which emphasize the contrast between Jerusalem’s humanitarian endeavors and Hamas’ continued hostility.”

Beth Oppenheim, director of an Israeli human-rights organization, suggests that all such solutions, while well-intentioned only address the symptoms, rather than the cause of the crisis. In an op-ed published by Arab News, Oppenheim calls on the international community to finally challenge Israel’s discriminatory policies that have stunted Palestine’s development: “The asymmetric model of economic cooperation agreed between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in 1994 stutters on, with Israel collecting Palestinian tax revenue and possessing the power to withhold it…. Economic growth can only be achieved by ending Israel’s restrictions. Rather than just providing cash injections, donors should harness their diplomatic and economic leverage to push Israel to meet its obligations toward the 5.1 million Palestinians under its control…. Donations from the international community can only ever be a tourniquet. The international community must seize the moment to challenge Israel on its policy of inflicting harm on the Palestinian economy as a weapon of war.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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