Unemployment in Gaza and EU Diplomatic Forays

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The deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories, particularly in the Gaza strip, has once again captured the headlines this week, as the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) released a new report.  The report, posted on the Al Bawaba website, “estimated the average unemployment rate in Gaza at more than 45% in the second half of 2010, which is one of the worst in the world. It added that over 45.2 percent of the working-age people in Gaza were unemployed, a slight improvement from the 45.7 percent of unemployed in the parallel period in 2009. UNRWA related this relatively high unemployment rate mainly to Israel’s blockade against Gaza following the election of Hamas in January 2006, and the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is assumed to be held in Gaza.”

The report sparked a number of responses by the media in the region. The Saudi Arab News editorial calling the blockade “brutal” noted, “It has been five years since Israel imposed its oppressive and inhuman blockade on the Gaza Strip. Without doubt it has been easily one of the toughest and most trying periods in the eventful history of the Palestinian people.…What is the Palestinian crime? The audacity to choose who they want as their representatives and leaders? Isn’t this the very freedom that people in Western democracies routinely exercise? Why does it become a problem when the same right is exercised by the Palestinians and Arabs? Why are international champions of democracy and freedom, howling over the atrocities of Libyan and Syrian regimes, silent on Israeli crimes? It is precisely because of this hypocrisy and double standards that no one today takes Western lectures on democracy and freedom seriously.”

In an op-ed at Jordan Times, Michael Jansen also doesn’t mince words, calling the blockade on Gaza “ethnic cleansing by stealth” while lamenting the fact that “it is highly unlikely that the international community, led by the US, will press Israel to lift its punitive blockade or take any steps to relieve Gaza.…In spite of Israeli claims that economic conditions for Palestinians living in the West Bank are improving, UNRWA tells another story.…Unable to effect “ethnic cleansing” by forcible expulsion, Israel is carrying out a policy of ethnic cleansing by stealth through de-development, economic squeeze and administrative deportation. No one in the outside world does anything about it — except UNRWA. But then, UNRWA is ignored by the world powers.”

The situation in Gaza and the publication of the report served as grim reminders of the challenges that lie ahead for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, especially as they debate the viability of a future Palestinian state.  Against this background, there are discussions taking place about a possible unilateral declaration of independence. There is, however, disagreement on how or whether to go forward, even by traditional supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Daoud Kuttab writes at the Palestinian news website Amin about his concern that the Palestinians are “still missing [an] implementation plan.… The Palestinian strategy towards statehood is making significant progress among certain international political circles, but it is still lacking the necessary coordination and cohesion to bear the desired results.…It is sad to admit, but US President Barack Obama is right about one thing. Going to the United Nations General Assembly and extracting a majority vote in this international body will not, by itself, end the Israeli occupation. A UN vote, however, could be [a] key to statehood if it is part of a larger strategy. As of this moment, it does not appear that there is such a coherent and well-coordinated Palestinian strategy.…The realisation of Palestinian statehood needs a holistic internal, regional and international strategy. Such a strategy will require leadership, national unity and sacrifice.”

Similarly, writing in Haaretz, the dovish Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar wonders, what will the “Palestinians do with the bicycle that they cannot ride anywhere?… Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad know that the day after the vote in the UN, the Israel Defense Forces will not begin to withdraw its forces, and the settlers will not contact the movers. They understand that when September comes, they would have wasted thousands of liters of jet fuel in order to be hit by an American veto in the UN Security Council and to receive meaningless recognition by the world capitals of a state empty of content.”

It is not clear, however, what other options the Palestinian Authority has to increase its bargaining power with its Israeli counterpart. Just this week, according to a Jerusalem Post report, in a face-off between Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, the former “laid down what he called a “framework” Israel must bring to negotiations, including insistence on a unified Jerusalem, maintaining large settlement blocs located beyond the Green Line under Israeli sovereignty, an Israeli presence in the Jordan River valley, and a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue outside Israel proper. He said the Palestinian state will be ‘broken up’ but will have clearly demarcated borders.”

Given the difficulty of reconciling the Palestinian vision for a state and Israel’s unwillingness to make the concessions that it believes will put its security under threat, many question what can be done. The Saudis, for their part, seem to have had enough. George S. Hishmeh reports at Gulf News, “Saudi Arabia has apparently thrown down the gauntlet in its loud tiff with the Obama administration’s ‘misguided policies’ toward the Middle East and particularly its stance on the Palestinian issue, now in its 64th year, on which President Barack Obama recently reiterated the ‘unshakeable’ US support of Israel.…The articulate and sharp Prince Turki underlined that ‘there will be disastrous consequences’ for US-Saudi relations if the US vetoes UN recognition of a Palestine state.…How this will influence the American president remains to be seen, but should he reconsider his biased position all can live, as they say, ‘happily ever after.’”

The answer to that question, according to Yoram Ettinger, is: unlikely. Ettinger, commenting at the Israeli daily Ynet News, warns the Israeli government “not be deterred by psychological warfare from the White House” since “Obama lacks the domestic backing to effectively pressure Israel, which has recently gained in bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill and among constituents, while Obama lost the “Bin Laden Bump” and is struggling with a less-than-50% approval rating.…The results of the November 2010 Congressional elections revealed that Obama’s policies had lost the support of most constituents.…Will Prime Minister Netanyahu leverage this unique American support, defying pressure and solidifying Israel’s posture of deterrence in the face of an unpredictably violent Middle East, where concessions breed radicalism, terrorism and war? Or will he succumb to the psychological warfare launched by the White House?”

There are signs that other important actors are willing to play a more constructive role. Tom Moerenhout suggests on the Palestinian website Maan News that it is “Europe’s move.… The game of diplomacy has come at full speed. The 1967 borders and the recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations in September are at its center. A third intifada lies undeniably within the game’s gamble. Kicked off by US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the world is witnessing first hand either the unfolding of a historic moment, or the beginning of a new violent conflict. Or both. Despite their powerful status at the diplomatic level, the US and Israel only have two votes among 192 in the UN General Assembly. The European Union has 27. Eyes and lobby are already turning towards European countries. What will be Europe’s move?”

In fact, according to various news reports, “EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton has launched a bold initiative. The EU official in a letter over the weekend said the Quartet should hold a high-level meeting before the summer which spells out that Israel must pull back to its 1967 borders in return for security guarantees from the Palestinian side. ‘This is no time for unilateral moves on either side, since this could lead to escalation.… It is critical we make a gesture before the summer, because we need to contribute to a calming of a volatile situation that promises to be even more so as the year progresses,’ she said.”

The first reaction to the EU offer came from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who “rejected on Tuesday the European Union’s peace initiative. The plan, revealed in Haaretz on Tuesday, aims to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by convening a Middle East peace conference in Paris. ‘This is an attempt to distort the international community’s correct set of priorities,’ Lieberman told Army Radio, stressing that the current events in Iran and Syria should take precedence.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • 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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