Israeli occupation keeps Palestinians in poverty: UN

Bassem Aly, Tuesday 11 Sep 2012

The Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank severely harms the prospects for Palestinian economic development, a recently-published UN report warns

Palestinian children play at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City June 14, 2011. (Photo: Reuters/ Ismail Zaydah)

“The aim is not only to mirror the complexity of the crisis, but also to seek methods of solving it.” These words were said by Mahmoud El-Khafif, the Economic Affairs Officer to the Palestinian People's Unit of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in a press conference in Cairo on Tuesday discussing the organisation’s 2012 report on the developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

The report warned that long-term prospects for economic development in the OPT have worsened, essentially because of the Israeli blockade which has taken place since the Israeli military strikes against Gaza in 2009.

Long-term prospects for economic development in the Occupied Palestinian Territory have worsened, despite the fact that the report noted a 9.9 per cent increase in growth levels in 2012. Yet, El-Khafif stated that these numbers might be a bit “tricky”, explaining that the figures are impacted by donations from other states.

Food insecurity affects two of every three Palestinians in the OPT, but is most severe in Gaza. Also alarming is the poverty rate in East Jerusalem, estimated at 78 per cent, higher than the rates in the West Bank and Gaza. Such facts are accompanied by a decline in real wages and labour productivity and high unemployment rates which persisted at 26 per cent. Dilemmas of fiscal austerity, agricultural decline, and drop in donor support are problematic as well.

The real cause is directly related to occupation, and much less to the Palestinian Authority's (PA) economic policy, the report contends.

The report mentioned that the number of mobility barriers to Palestinian people and goods in the West Bank increased from 500 in 2010 to 523 in 2011. Moreover, demolitions of Palestinian homes and infrastructure increased in 2011, and the expansion of Israeli settlements, particularly in the areas surrounding East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, worsened the existing physical fragmentation between various Palestinian “Bantustans,” or disconnected enclaves.

“The occupation has almost eliminated all domestic and external marketing and investment opportunities”, El-Khafif accused the Israeli authorities. He revealed that public and private investment is restricted in 63 per cent of the West Bank land known as Area C, while Gaza remains under economic siege.

Notably, the report brought special attention to fishing and agriculture. The agricultural sector’s contribution to Palestinian GDP shrank from 12 per cent in 1995 to 5.5 per cent in 2011, the report indicates. Only 35 per cent of the irrigable land in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is actually irrigated, which costs the economy 110,000 jobs per year and 10 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, the construction of the Israeli separation barrier leaves 10 per cent of West Bank land trapped in the seam zone between the separation barrier and the 1967 borders. As a result, thousands of Palestinian farmers find it hard to access and cultivate their own land in the zone because it is difficult to obtain Israeli permits for them and for their workers to cross the barrier.

As a result of the Israeli ban on imported, high-quality fertilisers, agricultural productivity has declined by 33 per cent, the report says. The result is that agricultural activities have become less viable, and many Palestinian farmers have lost their source of livelihood. In addition, some 2.5 million fruit trees have been uprooted since 1967.

With fishing around Gaza restricted beyond 3 nautical miles from the coast, as compared with the internationally recognised limit of 20 miles, the Palestinian fishing industry has collapsed almost completely, the report says. The number of fishermen has declined by 66 per cent since 2000.

Other difficulties are caused by Israeli over-extraction of water, beyond the share determined by the 1993 Oslo Accords. The water taken is used inside Israeli borders and settlements and denies the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian farmers the right to construct wells to meet the growing demand of the Palestinian population for water. Excess Israeli extraction of water occurs even when the source of this water is almost entirely within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the report finds.

Even though Palestinian agriculture is operating at one quarter of its potential, the sector is resilient and capable of achieving a quick and sustainable recovery. But the study says the donor community and the Palestinian Authority have neglected the agricultural sector. It recommends taking corrective measures to compensate for the impact of the occupation. An agricultural development bank should be established to share risk, provide credit and insurance, and support marketing and post-harvest services, as well as funding and guaranteeing investment in agricultural and water infrastructure.

 “Everyone is calling on the PA to adopt strict austerity measures in order to fulfil the socioeconomic demands of the population, but no one asked the Israelis to lessen the harshness of their siege,” El-Khafif told Ahram Online.

He added that any further attempts of imposing tougher austerities on the Palestinian people might result in a “societal outburst”, which is occurring in the West Bank currently.

The PA encountered recently a week of angry demonstrations, with thousands taking to the streets to protest the soaring cost of living, rising petrol prices and unemployment, and many demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

On Sunday, some 60 trucks and lorries blocked roads in the centre of Ramallah for more than an hour in protest at rising petrol prices, an AFP correspondent said.

Further north, around 200 people gathered in Nablus calling for Fayyad's resignation, shouting slogans like: "The (Israeli) invasion didn't leave us hungry, but Fayyad has!" an AFP correspondent said.

In scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests which swept the Middle East last year, protesters have taken to the streets in their thousands to demand lower prices, with many demanding Fayyad's government tear up the Paris Protocol.

As a result, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has formally asked Israel for talks on changing the Paris Protocol governing economic ties between the two sides, so far without a response.

The Paris Protocol was a framework set up in 1994 which laid out the terms for the economic relations between Israel and the PA in four areas: trade relations, fiscal issues, monetary arrangements and labour.

Despite the growing protests, analysts say the government has very little room for manoeuvre, largely as a result of its commitments under the Protocol.

“As a member of the team who contributed to this report, I expect that this report might push the Palestinian request for UN membership forwards when it is presented to the General Assembly,” said El-Khafif.

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