Arab Palestine and what might have been

A look back at the history of the Palestinian Arab territories since their transfer from Jordan to Israel in 1967. 

During Jordanian and Egyptian rule prior to 1967, fewer than 60% of male Palestinian adults in the West Bank and Gaza were employed, life expectancy and education levels were low, and malnutrition, disease and child mortality were at abysmally high levels. After Israeli occupation, around 2,000 industrial plants were opened in the area, employing almost half the work force. During the 1970s, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth-fasting-growing economy in the world – ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea – and much higher than even Israel. Per-capita GNP shot up ten times from 1968 to 1991, exceeding Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. By 1999 (before the intifada), Palestinian per-capita income was nearly double Syria’s and much higher than Jordan’s; in fact, it was exceeded among Arab nations only by the Gulf states and Lebanon. Where there was not a single university before the occupation, seven existed by the early 1990s accommodating some 16,500 students. Illiteracy dropped to 14% of adults over 15 compared to 61% in Egypt and 44% in Syria. Mortality rates fell two-thirds between 1970 and 1990, and life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000. The infant mortality rate dropped from 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (compared to 40 in Egypt, 23 in Jordan and 22 in Syria). Round-the-clock electricity reached 20.5% of the population in 1967, 92.8% in 1986; indoor running water, 16% versus 85%; electrical or gas ranges, 4% versus 83.5%; and so on and so forth.

All this was achieved under what was essentially a hands-off policy by the Israelis in politics and administrative affairs, alongside much public- and private-sector investment from the Israeli side. In other words, Israel kept out of Palestinian affairs, to the extent of allowing political activity by the PLO as long as there was no overt incitement to violence. Where the economy is free, human nature will do the rest, and the Palestinians are no different than the rest of us. The Palestinians under Israeli rule were outstripping their Arab brethren (other than the special case of the oil-rich Gulf states) in every way. Most of this, of course, was due to the availability of the Israeli market in both labor and goods, which had been closed off to them completely under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation. It is ironic that Israel is being accused of choking off the Palestinian economy, which only existed in any meaningful sense thanks to Israeli involvement in the first place.

The problems began with the PLO, which had been expelled from Jordan in 1970 (after violently trying to overthrow the Jordanian government) and subsequently from Lebanon. Having no physical presence in the territories, PLO members were far more radical than the Palestinians actually living in the area, who were busy making lives for themselves. The first suicide bombings did not occur until a couple of months after the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat, that is, at a time when hopes were highest for an agreement. In other words, in the 26 years from occupation to the 1993 Oslo peace process, there was little armed resistance of any kind within the territories; terrorist attacks had originated overwhelmingly from outside. Once the PLO had secured its position as representative of the Palestinian people, the trouble intensified.

Despite the subsequent years of violence, Israel withdrew its forces from much of the occupied land, and around 99% of the Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza has been free from Israeli occupation since January 1997. The Barak administration made a sweeping offer to Arafat that included a complete end to the Israeli presence and huge concessions on Jerusalem, but Arafat not only rejected this but frustratingly failed to make even a counter-offer. Much of what is wrong in the region, and not only the territories, is the result of extremely unfortunate Palestinian leadership or the lack thereof. Arafat was elected president of the territories in 1996 in a highly questionable election, then simply cancelled the next one when his term expired in 1999 and never allowed another, essentially declaring himself president for life. Abbas appears to have done the same: he cancelled the election after his own term as president ended in 2009 and remains in office to this day, and has rejected (or, more accurately, ignored) an even better offer from Israel that would have given the Palestinians virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza and half of Jerusalem. It’s déjà vu all over again. And there is no reason to believe that his successor, whoever and whenever that may be, will prove any different. If the Palestinians had a Gandhi or Martin Luther King (or, indeed, a Sadat), their problems would have ended long ago. As it is, it is impossible to see how this will all end as long as the Palestinian Authority is allowed to negotiate on the Palestinian people’s behalf. Isn’t it time to turn elsewhere?

(Much of the information above was drawn from an invaluable essay in the July 1, 2002 edition of Commentary entitled “What Occupation?“by Efraim Karsh.)

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