Peace's a mirage in Israel occupied territories

In Perspective


Peace does not reign in Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Two Sundays in succession there have been violent clashes at the mosque compound, Haram al-Sharif, in the walled city of Jerusalem. Palestinian protests followed threats from militant Jewish groups to enter and pray in the compound, regarded by Jews as the site of their two ancient temples, in preparation for a takeover.

Palestinians are also furious over the decision by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), dominated by the secular Fateh movement, to delay voting in the UN Human Rights Council on the investigation by Justice Richard Goldstone of war crimes during Israel’s January war on Gaza.

Last Saturday, PA minister of national economy Bassem Khoury resigned in protest. He said, “I was in Geneva on Friday. I told Ramallah that we had enough votes to pass the resolution. But they decided to postpone until March. This is a disaster.” He dismissed threats by the Obama administration to drop efforts to restart the peace process if the PA insisted on a vote now.

No credibility

The Goldstone report debacle and Khoury’s resignation are serious blows to President Mahmoud Abbas. He lost whatever popular credibility he still had when he met Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month at the insistence of US President Barack Obama without getting any commitment on a freeze of Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Many Palestinians regard the PA as a sub-contractor providing security for Israel in the occupied territories while, Israel continues to colonise these territories.

Palestinians bitterly dismiss as a sham the ‘economic peace’ promised by Netanyahyu. Although the World Bank predicted a seven per cent growth in per capita GDP this year, Khoury pointed out that GDP had shrunk by 50 per cent since 2000. This year’s growth, therefore, may only reduce shrinkage to 43 per cent. Israel’s closures, road blocks and checkpoints have made West Bank villages, towns and cities enduring economic basket-cases.

Nablus, once an economic power house and major politico-cultural centre, is now a sad city. While Israel has recently lifted a dozen checkpoints around Nablus after seven years of complete blockage, the city is suffering economic collapse. In its handsome new mall, a symbol of revival, only three shops are open while the ancient souk is crowded with shoppers buying cheap goods from China.

The small Christian village of Taybe held its annual Oktoberfest last weekend. It was a grand occasion celebrated by thousands of Palestinians and foreigners determined to snatch a few hours of normal life from the occupation. They listened to salsa music from a Brazilian band, watched a puppet show, and drank beer — Taybe’s most famous product: golden beer, black beer and non-alcoholic beer. During the two-day festival Taybe, also an exporter of figs, grapes, and embroidery, earns more from sales of its produce than it does during the rest of the year.

Tourism

In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, pilgrims from Mangalore were intently observing a service in the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born in a manger. The Indians had left Herziliya on the Israeli coast at five in the morning to reach Bethlehem early in the day so they could make their tour of the holy sites and carry on to the Dead Sea.

They were firmly in the grip of their tour guides just as Bethlehem, hemmed on all sides by an eight meter high concrete slab wall, is imprisoned by Israel. Victor Tabash who keeps a souvenir shop near the church, said, “This is the worst year for business in 40 years. Tourists come but are directed to certain shops by guides. Mail order business is down due to the economic collapse in the US.”

George Juha said his Manger Square restaurant is open only from nine in the morning until six at night. Major Ziad al-Khatib, commander of the Tourist Police said, “This year there is less tourism than last but it is not the worst. We have had 4,59,000 visitors and 2,31,000 stayed at least one night.”

Commerce would die in Bethlehem, Nablus, East Jerusalem, and now Hebron if Palestinian citizens of Israel were not bused in two days a week to do their shopping in these cities. Only Ramallah, where new buildings rise on every empty lot, is booming. But a boom in Ramallah does not make an economy and Palestinians are not enthusiastic about Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan to build an economy ahead of proclaiming a state. “His CEO approach is good for building a business,” said Najla, a young professional, “but not a country.”

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