Beware of the Palestinian Economic Bubble
In the land of historical Palestine, or greater Israel, choose whichever suits you best, life is expensive and salaries are low, real estate is overpriced and unemployment is rampant. So how has the land that Israel controls (directly and indirectly) remained so quiet in the face of economic hardship ?
The J14 protest movement that captivated Israeli attention throughout the summer of 2011 brought to light two essential facts. First that economic hardship was affecting every layer of society in the land of the former British mandate, all the way up to the offspring of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite. Second, that peaceful protests are only treated as such when they are led by the members of this elite. Arabs living under Israeli authority are not given the opportunity to stage such peaceful protests because they are immediately met with the excessive violence that characterizes a militarized state and it’s proxy authority in the occupied territories.
It does not take long for a visitor from Europe to realize that the economic situation is unsustainable. Prices of food, gasoline and other basic commodities are comparable if not higher than in Europe. Wages are lower and there is less welfare available from the state. Talaat, a PhD student who has examined the economic situation in his home region of the Galilee comments “if Arabs had to pay rent here we would be facing a humanitarian crisis”. His father complains of the excessive price of dairy and meat products. They are relatively well off by local standards. They own some land as well as their house and the men all have jobs.
In the West Bank the feelings are similar. Food, gas, cigarettes and cellphone credit, the basic commodities of the average Palestinian, eat through their budget. Here too most people own their home and the youth live with their parents. Wages are lower than in Israel “proper” and sales taxes are higher since the people must pay for two layers of government.
An illegal taxi driver from Qusra, in the hills south of Nablus tells me he is among the lucky ones : ” I have a house and a car and I am married, yet I can’t even afford to take my wife for a drive because gas is so expensive”. He claims he spends 1000 shekels per month on jawwal calling cards alone. I can easily believe him : I hardly use my cellphone and it gobbles nearly 10 shekels every day. This money goes to Palestine’s richest man, billionaire Munib al Masry. He owns the main cellphone company, Jawwal, as well as many other segments of the Palestinian economy. My driver points to his house, a faux greek temple of tackiness overlooking Nablus from the top of mount Gerizim, and tells me “if you opened the borders and let us travel to Europe we would all get out of here to seek work, and al Masry would be left here all alone”.
Al Masry merely symbolizes the upper crust of Palestinian crony capitalists and occupation profiteers who gather around the Palestinian National Authority. Their policies are arguably as effective as Israeli settlers and soldiers in driving Palestinians from their homeland.
Meanwhile family solidarity and a long tradition of resilience make up for the lack of welfare services and provide the basic commodities. Foreign institutions such as the UN and international NGO’s inject enough money to keep the economy afloat.
All these elements come together to provide an illusion of stability and development. The economic bubbles of Ramallah and Nablus may fool pundits and decision makers into thinking that economic development will bring peace and stability to the region. To the few who bother to step outside and ask the people in villages and towns throughout the West Bank, the situation will appear dire and unsustainable.
Israel, it’s western backers and it’s local proxy should fear the moment when the gap in between wages and cost of living becomes unbridgeable for Palestinians throughout the former British mandate. All bubbles burst sooner or later, and it’s to be expected that the myth of peace through economic growth won’t come crashing down quietly.