Israel’s grip on the Palestinian economy amounts to business as usual. Palestinians carry shekels in their pockets, and most of what they buy with the Israeli currency comes from Israel, which is said to account for at least 80% of foreign trade with the occupied territories. That is a dependence that goes unremarked until something untoward comes along, such as the recent Palestinian effort to gain recognition as a state. Condemned as a “unilateral” move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the statehood bid prompted his government to withhold the customs and other taxes it routinely collects for the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the Oslo Accords. (Israel has done so in the past to express displeasure at Palestinian developments, including in 2006 when Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian legislature and, earlier this year, when Fatah and Hamas heated up their reconciliation.) Noting the lack of legal basis for the action, Haaretz calls it “tantamount to stealing.” In practical terms, however, the $100 million Israel has held back since UNESCO voted in Palestine endangered the paychecks for some 150,000 Palestinian government employees, salaries that support about a third of the population. (Israeli hardliners have alleged that the funds would go to house Palestinian prisoners recently released in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.)
On Wednesday, after intense lobbying by Western governments, Netanyahu’s government voted to finally release the funds for October and November. But officials also threatened to withhold funds in the future and, as always, the latest delay has had its effect. Nearly half of the Palestinian Authority employees live in the Gaza Strip, where the impact is compounded by the especially peculiar norms of economic life there. In the coastal enclave, Israel’s grip on the local economy sometimes looks like a stranglehold. The Jewish State says it no longer occupies Gaza, having dismantled its settlements and pulled out its troops in 2005. But it continues to control the Strip’s boundaries on three sides, enforcing for three years what critics describe as an economic “siege” on the 1.5 million residents after the militant Islamists of Hamas took full control there and captured the soldier Gilad Shalit.
(PHOTOS: The tunnel economy of Gaza.)
After the 2010 flotilla fiasco, Israel was persuaded to loosen up. The best measure of the extent to which it has is the count of trucks allowed to cross into Gaza carrying goods. This autumn, the number was running at 160 per day. That’s double the number of a year ago but still far below the 1,000 a day that the Israeli-Palestinian Aix Group reckons would constitute “normal economic activity.”
The truly telling stat, however, is how many truckloads of goods are allowed out. By all accounts, the only hope for creating a sustainable Palestinian economy lay in a huge flow of exports. Famously crowded Gaza actually has a fair number of truck farms, and long shipped more than 80% of its vegetables and fruits to Israel and the West Bank. Israel agreed to continue that arrangement after pulling out its troops, negotiating an agreement in 2005 that would permit 400 trucks each day to leave Gaza. As the World Bank’s Nigel Roberts put it at the time, perhaps a bit hopefully: “I think the government of Israel understands perfectly well, securing Israel does not mean an impoverished, angry and bitter neighbor. History shows that while prosperity does not guarantee peace, rapid impoverishment guarantees violence.”
How many trucks went out? All told, 290– during the growing season that lasted from November 2010 to May 2011. That’s one-percent of the quota, and all were bound for Europe, including the two trucks of strawberries that went out this week. The other 99 percent may not be what Ghassan Kanafani had in mind when he wrote “The Land of Sad Oranges,” but the absence it describes brings into focus the part of this conflict that rarely makes headline but defines everyday life for the four million people under occupation. Sari Bashi, the Israeli activist who runs the Gisha advocacy group, says it also illustrates the Israeli military’s determination to isolate Gaza from the West Bank, a policy of enforced separation that goes back to the 1990s, predating the statehood bid, the siege and even the terrifying violence of the Second Intifada, when crossing points frequently came under attack.
“It is not clear how preventing producers in Gaza from selling eggplants, school desks, and oranges to the West Bank enhances Israeli security,” Bashi says, “but the ban is clearly harming Palestinians trying to engage in productive, dignified work.”