The Magazine

The Way Forward for the Palestinians

It's economic development, not peace-processing.

Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By DANIEL DORON
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The latest mission impossible embraced by those who would resolve the Middle East conflict is the effort to "democratize" the Palestinian Authority, an organization that has thrived on repression, violence, and aggressive irredentism. Meanwhile, a far more promising route to peace--the path of economic cooperation and development--is being neglected or given mere lip service. It's as if the only form of economic life possible for Palestinians were the one that has prevailed in the last ten years--the provision of foreign billions to huge bureaucracies that squandered or stole much of it, while lawlessness and corruption suppressed private initiatives. There was a time, however, when the slow growth of a Palestinian middle class with a real stake in peace was helping mitigate the conflict and make it manageable.

During the quarter century from the Six Day War till the Oslo Accords, from 1967 to 1993, political stalemate actually enabled a quiet peace. In those years, Israel maintained a modicum of law and order in Palestinian areas, and the Palestinian economy flourished, its GDP more than quadrupling. The Palestinian standard of living rose dramatically. Infant mortality fell, seven new colleges and universities were established (where none had existed under Jordanian rule), and the welfare of the people, especially of women and children, improved so much that the birth rate soared.

Most Palestinians seemed to prefer this slowly evolving peace to the political ambitions of their leaders. Thus, shortly after Oslo but before PLO incitement had infected their minds and provoked bloody clashes with Israel, the Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem were asked to choose to receive either Palestinian Authority or Israeli identity papers. Over 95 percent chose Israeli. They did so despite disliking Israeli occupation and loathing Israeli bureaucracy (which drives even Israelis up the wall). They cared more about feeding their families and advancing their personal interests than grabbing for instant political gratification.

Already they were wary of Arafat's nascent Palestinian Authority. Real estate prices plummeted in Arab sections rumored to be destined for transfer to the Palestinian Authority. More recently, most "experts" predicted that an Israeli move to occupy the Orient House, the PLO's illegal stronghold in Jerusalem, would see the city's large Arab population erupt in bloody riots. The State Department sternly warned Israel not to take this step. Yet the takeover last year elicited only feeble protests by a few dozen employees of the Palestinian Authority and some peace activists and Quaker volunteers displaying signs in English for the benefit of CNN.

During the quarter century of relative peace, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel. Crossing through border checkpoints was infuriatingly slow and humiliating, but once inside Israel they had total freedom of movement. Had they been committed to the PLO struggle against Israel, they could have inflicted enormous damage. Yet only a very few of them, generally PLO hirelings, engaged in acts of terrorism.

Most Arabs were reluctant to join in Arafat's war. Most, after the occupation of the disputed territories in 1967, constituted a silent majority who preferred accommodation with Israel. Even now, when Arabs feel great anger about Israeli military incursions, few express their fury in violent actions. In Jerusalem, Arabs have remained moderate in the face of numerous PLO provocations because they benefit greatly from the commerce generated by tourism, which depends on peace. And in Gaza, the hotbed of radicalism, Palestinian workers last Thursday showed their priorities when tens of thousands mounted an unprecedented "Hunger March" against the Palestinian Authority, demanding that it stop violence against Israel so they could go back to work there and earn money to support their families.

The radicals have never extinguished this normal human wish to work and provide. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, Palestinians opened informal markets on the demarcation lines between Arab and Jewish areas catering to Israelis who couldn't shop in Israel on the Sabbath except in kibbutzim. These markets were earning the Palestinians an estimated $300 million annually, half as much as they receive in foreign aid and about one-quarter of their GNP.

Eager to lure Jewish buyers, Arab shopkeepers did all they could to keep the peace and promote good relations with their customers. Arab merchants developed a lucrative trade with Israel. Palestinian agriculture, once primitive, became advanced and prosperous. The large surplus of workers this created found employment in Israel as unskilled labor. Gradually they acquired new skills, raising their income or opening new industrial and commercial ventures, many of which became quite prosperous.