|WHO RUINED GAZA? By Efraim Karsh ............|
No sooner had Israel completed its withdrawal of 8,000 Jewish citizens from the Gaza Strip than official Palestinian spokesmen proclaimed that this move would not end the occupation — since Israel would continue to control the region’s coast and air space.
In fact, Israel’s occupation of the Strip ended not in August, 2005, but 11 years earlier. The declaration of principles signed on the White House lawn in 1993 by the PLO and the Israeli government provided for Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a transitional period, during which Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent peace settlement. By May, 1994, Israel had completed its withdrawal from Gaza (apart from various Israeli settlements) and the Jericho area of the West Bank. On July 1, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat made his triumphant entry into Gaza, and shortly afterward both the Israeli civil administration and military government were dissolved.
From then on, Gaza’s Palestinian population no longer lived under Israeli occupation, but rather under the jurisdiction of the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority (PA). As the virulently anti-Israel tone of Palestinian media and school curricula shows, not to mention the territory’s extensive terrorist network, the Israeli presence during this period was virtually non-existent.
But Palestinians and their supporters were not about to give up the “occupation” charge. Since the Israeli conquest of Gaza and the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day war, the term has become the Palestinian trump propaganda card, allowing them not only to demonize Israel and justify terrorism, but also to extract substantial international aid. This week, as the Israeli army evacuated its last troops from Gaza, billions more dollars were set to flow in.
The Palestinians argue that such funds are necessary to repair the damage caused by Israelis. Upon his arrival in Gaza in 1994, Arafat lost no time in painting conditions there in the blackest possible shades. “You can’t imagine the poor shape in which we received Gaza,” he complained. “The infrastructure was totally ruined. The Israelis took everything before their departure: doors, windows, light bulbs, and taps … There is no ill from which Gaza does not suffer.”
This claim was divorced from reality. During their 19-year occupation of the Gaza Strip (1948-67), the Egyptians ruled the area with an iron fist, keeping the local population in squalid, harshly supervised camps, where they could serve as a rallying point for anti-Israel sentiment. Life expectancy was low, malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child mortality were rife, and the level of education was low. Palestinians were denied Egyptian citizenship and were subjected to severe restrictions on travel and work, with unemployment among refugees running above 80%. “The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are,” Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to a Western reporter in 1956. “We will always see that they do not become too powerful. Can you imagine yet another nation on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean?”
The passing of Gaza (and the West Bank) into the hands of Israel led to dramatic improvements in the Palestinians’ quality of life, placing the population of the territories well ahead of most of their Arab neighbors. Unlike Nasser, the Israelis were not interested in keeping the Palestinians artificially subjugated as a prop to demonstrate Arab suffering. Schools, hospitals and other civic amenities were built, and the economy exploded.
During the 1970’s, in fact, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world — ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. Although GNP per capita grew somewhat more slowly thanks to the rapidly expanding Palestinian population, the rate was still high by international standards, with per-capita GNP expanding tenfold between 1968 and 1991 from US$165 to US$1,715 (compared with Jordan’s US$1,050, Egypt’s US$600, Turkey’s US$1,630, and Tunisia’s US$1,440).
Under Israeli rule, the Palestinians also made vast progress in social welfare. Life expectancy rose from 48 in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa). Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000. (In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by comparison, the rate was 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22). And under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases such as polio, whooping cough, tetanus and measles were eradicated.
No less remarkable were advances in the Palestinians’ standard of living. By 1986, 93% of the population in the West Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock, as compared with 21% in 1967; 85% had running water in dwellings, as compared to 16% in 1967; 84% had electric or gas ranges for cooking, as compared to 4% in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions and cars.
Finally, during the two decades preceding the intifada of the late 1980’s, the number of enrolled schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102%, though the population itself had grown by only 28%. Even more dramatic was the progress in higher education. At the onset of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West
Bank, not a single university existed in these territories. By the early 1990s, there were seven such institutions, boasting some 16,500 students, as compared with six in Israel itself. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14% of those over age 15, compared with 69% in Morocco, 61% in Egypt, 45% in Tunisia, and 44% in Syria.
But all of these economic and social achievements were steadily undone during the 1990s as the population of the territories came under the PA’s jurisdiction.
Since the PA’s creation in May 1994, the international community has committed an estimated US$10-billion to the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. But donor states turned a blind eye to the systematic misuse of these funds through their diversion to racist incitement, weaponry and secret bank accounts. Extensive protection and racketeering networks run by PA officials sprang up, while the national budget was plundered at will by PLO veterans and Arafat’s cronies.
Their most notorious rackets derived from the monopoly rights for the production and sale of virtually all basic goods affecting the population’s daily life, from wheat, petrol, and cement, to wood, gravel, cigarettes, and cars. This has not only allowed the ruling elite to make large profits at the expense of ordinary Palestinians, but has also had a detrimental effect on the economy as a whole by preventing competition and discouraging entrepreneurship.
To make things worse, from the moment of his arrival in Gaza, Arafat set out to build an extensive terrorist infrastructure. He refused to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as required by the Oslo accords, and tacitly approved the murder of hundreds of Israelis. He also reconstructed the PLO’s own terrorist apparatus, mainly under the auspices of the tanzim, which is the military arm of Fatah (the PLO’s largest constituent organization and Arafat’s own alma mater).
Eventually, Arafat resorted to outright mass violence, first in September, 1996, to publicly discredit the newly-elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then in September, 2000, with the launch of his all-out terror war (euphemistically called the al-Aqsa Intifada), this shortly after being offered by Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 92% of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
This combination of corruption and terrorism proved catastrophic. When the declaration of principles was signed on the White House lawn in September, 1993, conditions in the territories were still better than those in most neighbouring Arab states — despite the economic decline caused by the first intifada of 1987-93. But within six months of Arafat’s arrival in Gaza, the standard of living in the strip fell by 25%, and more than half of the area’s residents claimed to have been happier under Israel.
Things got much worse in 2000. War is by its nature a destructive endeavour, and Arafat’s terror war was no exception, inflicting great damage on Israel but also eradicating the fragile fabric of civil society that had been developing in the territories during the decades prior to his arrival. Unemployment increased from 10% to an average of 41% during 2002, and the proportion of the population that was poor rose from 20% to over 50%. Private investment and trade fell dramatically.
According to a recent World Bank report, “the precipitator of this economic crisis has been the “restriction on the movement of goods and people” imposed by Israel to protect its citizens. But this analysis substitutes cause for effect. For it is not the closure of Palestinian areas that has precipitated the Palestinian economic malaise but rather the tidal wave of suicide bombers that made this closure inevitable.
Shortly before the launch of the Palestinian war of terror, the then-President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn justified the high levels of international aid to the West Bank and Gaza by claiming that continued economic development was the key to peace. Wolfensohn is now the international special envoy for disengagement, and he continues to make this argument: “This is a moment of destiny,” he recently said. “Both sides need to understand the issue that the economic and social development of the West Bank and Gaza is part of Israel’s security.”
One can only wonder what Wolfensohn, who has contributed US$500,000 of his own money to the development of Gaza, thinks about the events that have transpired in the days since the Israeli withdrawal. Greenhouses purchased for Gazans have been looted and smashed. Former synagogues have been burnt. The Egyptian border is being used to smuggle weapons. (Thanks to the new glut, the price of AK-47 assault rifles has apparently fallen by 50% in the last week.) Meanwhile, Hamas and rogue elements from Fatah are openly challenging the Palestinian Authority. The territory seems to be dissolving into chaos. Some will no doubt blame Israel for this, as well: The fact there are no Jews left in Gaza will not impede those who insist on seeing all Palestinians as victims of the Jewish state.
In fact, it is Palestinians’ own leaders who bear the blame for the miserable state of Gaza, and of Palestinian society more generally. Only when these leaders, and the groups that challenge them, renounce violence as a political tool and embrace civilized values such as rule of law will Gaza flourish.
Efraim Karsh is Professor and Head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, and author most recently of Arafat’s War (Grove, 2004).