A Palestinian in his twenties gets into a taxi at the new Israeli
checkpoint set up near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The cars
around us roar, straining against the noon-hour bottleneck. The
man is so angry that his hands shake as he gives the driver his
fare. "I have been sitting here since 9 o'clock," he says. "The
soldiers kept us here because the guy with me shouted at them. But
I have now spent half the day getting to work." His cell phone rings:
it's his boss at the factory asking where he is.
Over the past six months, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have descended
into economic crisis. Since late September, Israel has closed off
individual Palestinian villages and towns with military checkpoints,
cement blocks and deep earthen trenches to prevent Palestinian movement.
Justified by the Israeli government as needed to prevent attacks
against Israelis, the blockade has stopped the movement of food,
workers and Palestinians seeking medical treatment. But it has not
stopped the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.
"Assume that the closures are lifted today," says Sebastien Dessus,
an economist for
the World Bank. "It would take years to return to the former situation."
By the end of the year, he says that the percentage of Palestinian
poor in the Gaza Strip could rival that of most African nations.
Palestinian teenagers dismantle
at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza.
In February, Dessus and a team of World
Bank economists completed a report
on Palestinian poverty, and the numbers are not encouraging.
Three years ago, 23 percent of the 3 million Palestinians fell below
a poverty line of $2 a day. But then there was some reason to be
hopeful. Many people had moved above that line despite only modest
economic growth since peace agreements with Israel. In 1998, the
Palestinian economy was improving. Unemployment had dropped to its
lowest point in years. Investors were taking the plunge, starting
big money ventures like a casino in Jericho and an Intercontinental
Hotel in Bethlehem.
Then disaster struck. After six months of the Israeli-imposed closure,
the Palestinian economy is in shambles. Israel has sealed Palestinian
exits to the outside world, closed off West Bank towns and villages
in some 60 areas and partitioned the Gaza Strip into several separate
sections. If conditions stay as they are, Dessus says, the percentage
of Palestinians in poverty could soon rival that of Bolivia or Sri
Lanka. By December, two-thirds of Gaza's population of more than
1 million will have descended into poverty. The reasons for this
impoverishment are clear. Closures have prevented 130,000 people
from going to jobs inside Israel. Factories have reduced their production,
either because materials are not available or because products cannot
be shipped to the market. "Business has dropped by 60 to 70 percent,"
says Palestinian economist Samir Abdullah. "Employment in the domestic
economy has dropped by 20 percent."
The natural results of impoverishment are rapidly taking hold.
In 1998, the West Bank and Gaza Strip boasted rates of literacy
and infant mortality comparable with upper-middle-income countries
such as Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Now, according to the U.N.
Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Palestinians are seeing a 58
percent rise in stillborn births and falling vaccination rates.
"According to our staff, there are quite a number of families cutting
out meals," says Nabil Handal, chief operating officer of Catholic
Relief Services, adding that half of the preschool students
at CRS-funded schools have dropped out due to the added cost and
inability to travel. Next in line are those dropping out of college.
And women are increasingly choosing to give birth at home because
of the cost and danger in going to a hospital.
"The Israeli policy of collective punishment," Abdullah explains,
"is that they want the Palestinian people to criticize the Palestinian
Authority and say that it is doing nothing to mitigate Israeli policies."
Meanwhile, international relief is pouring in. In February, the
Red Cross began to distribute nearly $1 million worth of sugar,
tea and personal hygiene items to the 35,000 West Bank families
hit hardest by the Israeli blockade. UNRWA, which supports Palestinian
refugees, has made a $39 million appeal to funders for employment
generation programs. The European Union has put up $60 million to
pay 150,000 Palestinian public employees. Even the World Bank has
contributed, taking the inordinate step of granting, rather than
loaning, $12 million to the Palestinian government. Soon, the U.S.
development agency, USAID, will
join the chorus, handing out $20 million for job-creation programs
in Palestinian areas. "I feel like we are always solving problems
that should not have occurred," says Thomas Neu, director of American
Near East Refugee Aid, a recipient of USAID funds. "I think
the most important thing right now is to release the siege."
The U.S. State Department has said that the Israeli closure does
"nothing to enhance security in the region," but has yet to actively
confront Israel over its measures against the Palestinians.
Even some Israeli leaders have acknowledged that the closure of
Palestinian areas does more harm than good. "This policy cannot
protect Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks," said Ami Ayalon,
former head of the Israeli secret service, in a statement to the
Israeli press. "On the contrary, this policy will lead the Palestinian
society toward further violence and terror."
Just after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office, a new
checkpoint was established between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Traffic
was backed up for a mile as Israeli soldiers searched every car
and meticulously checked the papers of every driver. Most people
abandoned their cars and walked through the checkpoint completely
unimpeded, albeit nervous under the guns of a tank parked on the
hill. After the new checkpoint made international news, Israel said
it had been only trying to catch "terrorists" and that the closure
of Ramallah would be eased. Since then, traffic passes more easily
through the area, although the rudiments of a checkpoint remain,
ready to close the area at any time.
In the face of this, Palestinians remain stalwart. "If there is
no pay, people will wait," Abdullah says. "They will not go to the
streets and demonstrate against the Palestinian Authority. But they
might go to the checkpoints and fight the Israelis."