The building boom seems to be a good sign, confirming Israeli assertions that the economy in the occupied West Bank is flourishing. But on second thought, my enthusiasm faded. After all, the money invested in residential buildings does not go to factories or other enterprises that provide jobs and promote real growth. It only shows that some people are getting rich even under the occupation.
My destination was a diplomatic reception. Some high functionaries of the Palestinian Authority and other upper-class Palestinians attended.
I exchanged pleasantries with the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, and some of the well-dressed guests, and enjoyed the delicacies. I did not discern any excitement.
Nobody would have guessed that at that very moment, in the center of the city, a stormy demonstration was taking place. It was the beginning of a massive protest that is still going on.
THE DEMONSTRATORS in Ramallah and other towns and villages in the West Bank are protesting against the high cost of living and the economic hardship in general.
Palestinian journalists told me that the price of gasoline in the West Bank is almost the same as in Israel: about eight shekels per liter. That would be about eight dollars per gallon in the US or 1.7 Euro per liter in Europe. Since the minimum wage in the West Bank, about $250 per month, is only a quarter of the Israeli minimum wage, that is atrocious. (This week the Palestinian Authority hastily lowered the price.)
Recently, on the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday ending the Ramadan month of fasting, the occupation authorities surprisingly allowed 150 thousand Palestinians to enter Israel. Some went straight to the sea shore, which many of them had never seen before, though they live less than an hour's drive away. Some went to visit ancestral homes. But many others went on a shopping spree. It appears that many goods are actually cheaper in Israel than in the impoverished occupied territories!
(By the way, not a single incident was reported that day.)
THE PROTESTS were against the Palestinian Authority. It's a bit like a dog biting the stick, instead of the man who is wielding it.
Actually, the PA is quite helpless. It is bound by the Paris Protocol, the economic appendix of the Oslo agreement. Under this protocol, the occupied territories are part of the Israeli "customs envelope" and the Palestinians cannot fix their own customs duties.
Amira Hass of Haaretz quotes the following conditions: inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are not allowed to export their agricultural products; Israel exploits the water, minerals and other assets in the West Bank; Palestinian villagers pay much higher prices for water than Israeli settlers; Gaza fishermen cannot fish beyond three miles from the shore; Palestinian inhabitants are forbidden to travel on the main highways, compelling them to make costly and time-consuming detours.
But more than any restrictions, it's the occupation itself that makes any real improvement impossible. What serious foreign investor would go to a territory where everything is subject to the whims of a military government which has every motive for keeping its subjects down? A territory where every act of resistance can provoke brutal retaliation, such as the physical destruction of Palestinian offices in the 2002 "Operation Defensive Shield"? Where goods for export can rot for months, if an Israeli competitor bribes an official?
Donor nations can give some money to the Palestinian Authority to keep it alive, but they cannot change the situation. Neither would the abolition of the Paris Protocol, as demanded by the demonstrators, change much. As long as the occupation is in place, any progress -- if there is any -- is conditional and temporary.
STILL, THE situation in the West Bank remains far better than the situation in the Gaza Strip.
True, as a result of the "Turkish flotilla," the blockade of the Strip has been lifted to a large extent. Almost everything can now be brought into the Strip from Israel, though almost nothing can be brought out. Also, the naval blockade is in full force.
However, lately the situation there has been improving rapidly. The hundreds of tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border are in practice bringing in everything, from cars to gasoline to building materials. And now, with the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt, this border may be opened completely, a step that would radically change the economic situation of the Strip.