Money for Nothing
This is crunch time for the new emergency government. It knows all too well that it has a small window of opportunity to prove its ability to pull the Palestinians back from the throes of poverty and social and political disintegration. With Hamas still ruling the streets of Gaza and mutual accusations between this party and Fateh over who is to blame for the current state of misery, President Mahmoud Abbas and new Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad are placing their bets on hard currency – the euros, greenbacks and riyals they know is the key to their survival.
It was long ago when the Palestinians fell into the trap of international funding – basically, the signing of the Oslo Accords marked the first paycheck handed to the fledgling Palestinian Authority at the expense of their ultimate freedom over their own destiny.
Since then, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been prisoners to this financial assistance. When the political leadership was favorable to the funders – mainly the United States and Europe – the dollars flowed. During the decade after the PA was created with Fateh at the helm, investment in the Palestinian territories boomed and life in the West Bank and Gaza took on a semblance of normalcy, to the point where the Palestinians almost forget that their main and most challenging task was still at hand– eliminating Israeli rule over their land.
However, the makings of a subordinate Palestinian entity had been securely put in place, one which would be forced to rely on external funding for as long as this remained in the interests of the powers that be – i.e. Israel and the United States. And while the majority of Palestinians were still unaware of the extent of this subordination, mostly because their leadership had convinced them that they were well on their way to independence, it did not take long for the true nature of this arrangement to rise to the surface.
Once the Palestinians signed the politically and economically binding Oslo Accords they had inadvertently put themselves at the mercy of Israeli and American dictates, including how much money comes into the Palestinians territories and how it is disbursed. After late President Yasser Arafat passed away in 2004, and the political winds shifted towards a more Islamist trend, the valves on the flow of international funding began to tighten.
However, it was not until Hamas took power after its sweeping victory in the January 2006 Legislative Council elections and later formed the government that funding came to a standstill. The United States, Israel and Europe all consider Hamas as a “terrorist organization” and not a suitable “partner for peace” for the Israelis. So, as punishment for the Palestinians’ democratic choice, the funders imposed a strangulating economic boycott on the Palestinian Authority, completely halting all aid directly to the Authority and limiting assistance to relief efforts.
The results, no doubt, have been devastating on the leadership and the people alike. Since the boycott, over 60 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza live under the internationally recognized poverty line of $2/day. Furthermore, due to the lack of funds to the PA, its 160,000-strong civil servant sector has not received regular salaries for months. Unemployment levels have also been on the rise, partly because of the impoverished Palestinian economy and partly because of Israel’s stringent security measures that have barred large numbers of Palestinians to seek work inside Israel. The World Bank has estimated the unemployment rate in the West Bank and Gaza at a staggering 40 percent.
Furthermore, since the boycott was put in place over year ago, the World Health Organization estimated that 270,000 Gazans rely on food aid. This number shot up to 377,000 after the Palestinian –Palestinian infighting earlier this month resulting in the Hamas takeover of the Strip.
Needless to say, this dismal picture has put the Palestinians in a bind, not only politically but economically as well. Both leaderships, Hamas in Gaza and the Fateh-backed emergency government in the West Bank understand that when a nation is on the threshold of poverty, it will look to leaders to pull them back from the abyss and will ultimately give support to those that help them put food on the table.
This is the only winning card the emergency government really has at the time being, but it can also serve as a death card if not played correctly. Israel, the Arabs, the United States and Europe have all pledged to financially back Abbas and his Fayyad-led government, pumping life back into the comatose Palestinian economy. As an immediate reaction, the poverty-stricken Palestinians may turn to them even if it is only because they represent a security and stability not enjoyed by the populace for over a year. Any confidence granted to this new government will certainly not be due to the popular platform its ministers enjoy. However, while Hamas may still have the support of many people, especially in Gaza, if the movement is unable to deliver anything except fiery slogans and unfulfilled promises, it will not be long before the previously blind faith of their most die hard supporters will begin to wane.
This is when Abbas and his emergency government will play a crucial role. Again, while the immediate response to a partial restoration of the economy will be one of relief, this will be all for nothing if the government does not move on issues equally as important. That is, in order to gain the people’s long term and undivided support, this new government must prove that it will not compromise on national issues. The Palestinians have been so overwhelmed by their dire financial situation, it has become easy to sidestep the basic goal of liberation.
Still, while leaders may have become sidetracked in their power struggles and have dragged some of their followers into bitter internal fighting, the Palestinian cause is still very much alive. This is something the leadership – any leadership – must remember, regardless of how much money they are able to secure, money, which in the end, is in no way conducive to an independent and viable Palestinian state given the restrictions imposed on its disbursal and conditions for its distribution.
In the end, regardless of whether this government was formed on a legal or illegitimate basis, the fact remains that is in place and is being supported by the major external players in the conflict. But if Abbas and Fayyad compromise on the fundamentals of the Palestinian national cause, then it will not only be signing its own death warrant, it will plunge the region into a fiercer and lengthier cycle of fighting and disunity - an option we Palestinians can no longer afford.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.