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The West Bank and Israel: Reasons for cautious optimism

Good news is no news would seem to be the case when it comes to the international media’s reporting on the Middle East. This would seem to be particularly true of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, where it is rare to read anything beyond the usual head-shaking reports on poverty, repression, violence and general hopelessness (especially when it comes to assessing the prospects of the sadly misnamed “Peace Process” making any headway). So pervasive is this knee-jerk pessimism, exacerbated as always by the dramatically polarised views that people have towards the whole controversy, that few have as yet registered how developments on the ground are creating a new, decidedly more positive reality.

Contrary to all expectations, not to mention the dominant trends of the past decade, the Fatah-controlled West Bank is not merely showing economic resilience but is in fact forging ahead at a dramatic pace in that regard. Last year, it registered an impressive 7% growth rate, in part because of the strong economic performance in neighbouring Israel. Some experts put the real growth rate at 11%. This is an extraordinary achievement at a time when the world as a whole is struggling to emerge from a severe recession.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, veteran Middle East analyst Tom Gross described the city of Nablus as “bursting with energy, life and signs of prosperity” in a way he had not previously seen in his many years of covering the region. One sign of this new buoyancy, apart from the crowded shops and restaurants, were the number of BMWs and Mercedes on the streets (considerably more than he had seen, for example, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). As of the middle of last year, in fact, the Nablus stock market was, according to Palestinian Securities Exchange head Ahmad Aweidah, the second-best performing in the world, after Shanghai.

Gross painted a similar picture of Ramallah, the capital. New apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and health clubs were the order of the day. Meanwhile, plans were afoot to build a new Palestinian city, Rawabi, just north of Ramallah.

Tourism is very much on the up. The official Palestinian Wafa news agency reported near-record tourism in the third quarter of last year, with some 136 000 overnight hotel stays in the 89 hotels currently open.

It goes without saying that a very different situation exists in the Hamas dominated Gaza Strip, where a ruinous, self-defeating pursuit of violent hostilities against Israel has made impossible the kind of development currently witnessed in the West Bank.

Israel, routinely depicted as the obstacle to Palestinian development, has been very much involved in the current economic turn-around. Palestinian farmers were being trained by Israeli agricultural experts and Israel was supplying them with irrigation equipment and pesticides. With regard to the Rawabi project, the Jewish National Fund helped plant 3 000 tree seedlings for a forested area skirting the city and Israelis are helping in planning public parks and other civic amenities. Critically, the decline in terrorist violence against Israelis from the West Bank has led to Israel’s dismantling of most of the checkpoints.

One can only hope that Palestinians, whether at the leadership or street level, will take to heart the obvious lesson from all this, namely that whereas violence carries with it a high price tag its alternative, peaceful co-existence, brings significant rewards. To be sure, there remains wide-spread poverty in the West Bank, but the relative peace of the past few years has already led to the problem being significantly alleviated.

For their part, Israel needs to make every effort to facilitate the recovery process, such as through constantly reviewing and adapting its own policies with regard to security, recognising and remedying cases of unfair and unreasonable discrimination and in general striving to normalise its day-to-day relationship with its Palestinian neighbours.

None of this is easy. A legacy of profound anger, fear and distrust on both sides generated by years of the bitterest conflict, continues to exercise its malign influence. Certain deal-breaking issues, such as the question of refugees, borders, security and the future of Jerusalem, are as far away as ever from being resolved. Inevitably, these will continue to fester, and addressing them certainly cannot be shelved indefinitely.

Interviewed by the Washington Post last June, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a surprising response to the writer, Jackson Diel’s question as to why he had rejected the previous year’s offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud to create a Palestinian state in virtually the whole of the West Bank. “In the West Bank we have a good reality. The people are living a normal life,” was what he actually said.

Aweidah was more explicit, explaining that there was no sense of urgency in pursuing Palestinian statehood because of the need for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to assist the Palestinian security forces in keeping out Hamas. (It will be remembered how in 2006, Fatah was driven from Gaza by Hamas in a short and brutal civil war; today, and for good reason, Fatah would seem to fear a recurrence of this in the West Bank more than they fear the IDF, notwithstanding what they might say for public consumption.)

There would indeed seem to be a growing, if necessarily understated, approach on both sides that sees progress in the short-to-medium term as taking the form of small, incremental changes on the ground rather than in the fraught pursuit of sweeping, final-status breakthroughs on the diplomatic front. The international community, in light of the many failed, indeed counter-productive, high-level peace initiatives that have come and gone over the past decade and more, would do well instead to find ways to assist the West Bank Palestinians in their efforts to uplift themselves.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.