Global Economic Context
Looking at the last third of the twentieth century, Canadian economist James Davies, in a study prepared by the World Institute for Development Economics Research, wrote “income inequality has been rising for the past 20 to 25 years and we think that is true for inequality in the distribution of wealth.” In 2000 the study showed that the top 1 percent of the world’s population accounted for 40 percent of its total net worth, with the bottom half owning 1.1 percent. Edward Wolff, another economist participating in the study, wrote “With the notable exception of China and India, the third world has drifted behind.” (New York Times, December 6, 2006).
The starkest interpretation of this kind of data was reflected in a 2003 article by Egyptian economist Samir Amin. He asserted that the global economy is creating what he called “the precarious classes.” Both in agriculture and manufacturing they cannot count on day-to-day remunerative activity to survive. Amin estimated that 2/3 to 3/4 of humankind are among the “precarious classes.”
Relevance to the Middle East in the 21st Century
A financial publication entitled “Arab Banker” printed a summary of a 2007 World Bank study, “Two Years After London: Restarting Palestinian Economic Recovery.” The World Bank, the Arab Banker, and other sources presented the following alarming data:
-The percentage of Gazans living in poverty steadily increased from 1998 (21.6%) to 2006 (35%).
-Israeli policies barring imports and exports which isolated Gaza from the Israeli and global economy made matters worse; a 90 % decline in Gaza’s industrial operations occurred between the 2006 parliamentary election victory of Hamas and 2007.
-Industrial employment in Gaza declined from 35,000 in 2005 to 4,200 in 2007.
During the first decade of the new century, comparative economic data on Israel and the occupied territories indicated that West Bank and Gaza gross national product per capita was about 10 percent of that of Israel.
More recently, the United Nations issued a report entitled “Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey 2012: West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestine.” This report was produced under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, and the World Food program. It documented a connection between food insecurity in Palestine and external constraints on the economies of the West Bank and Gaza imposed by occupation and blockades. Among their findings were the following:
-34 percent of Palestinian households, comprising over 1.5 million people, live in situations of food insecurity (19 percent in the West Bank and 57 percent in Gaza).
-Food insecurity increased since 2009, derived from growing unemployment, declining purchasing power, and slowed or abandoned aid thus decreasing jobs, income, and consumption.
-Food insecure households (often with larger families) are more likely to experience disabilities and chronic illnesses.
The report made three general recommendations: lift the embargo on Gaza, increase West Bank access to the Israeli economy, and support efforts to increase economic productivity in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Middle East Wars
The contested land of Palestine had been largely populated by Muslim peoples from the 7th century until the mid-twentieth century. In 1947, the year that the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, only 1/3 of the land’s inhabitants were of Jewish background. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, declared the establishment of a new state of Israel, and the first Middle East war between the new Israeli army and Arab states ensued. Palestinians and Arab neighbors regarded the creation of the new state as an occupation of the historic residents of the land. Over the course of this first Middle East war and those that followed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became a displaced population.
Subsequently wars occurred in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and intermittently from the 1980s until today. (In the 1967 war Israel occupied, the West Bank, Gaza, the Old City of Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights, formerly Syrian land). These wars were fought between Israelis, Palestinians and states neighboring Israel. Disputes involved multiple issues including the legitimacy of the state of Israel; Israeli expansion, particularly its continuing construction of settlements in the West Bank and the displacement of Palestinian people; the rights of Palestinians inside Israel, and control of water and land throughout the region. Various organizations challenging the Israeli state and land expansion emerged over the last fifty years including the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Several nations supported contending parties to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict such as the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, former European colonial powers such as Great Britain and France, and neighboring Arab and other Muslim states.
The United States became Israel’s main ally during all these years. Since 1979 Israel has been the largest recipient on a per capita basis of foreign assistance from the United States of any of the latter’s clients. In addition, Israel has become the best equipped and most powerful military force in the region, largely due to the billions of dollars of US military assistance. Israel is the only state with nuclear weapons in the region. In a recent budget decision, the United States has agreed to provide military assistance totaling $3.8 billion per annum for ten years to Israel beginning in 2019.
Finally, pro-Israel lobby groups in the United States support continued military and economic aid to Israel. Israel, with United States support, opposes serious negotiations with what is now the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza. It is expected that recent West Bank/Gaza Palestinian agreements will harden Israeli opposition to serious negotiation.
Of course, Israel opposes initiatives from peace groups in the US and the international community. Currently, militant pro-Israel lobby groups as well as the Israeli government are pressuring Congress to pass legislation overturning Obama administration accords with Iran on nuclear weapons. Many also advocate US-led military action against Iran.
Violence and instability in the region, the tragedy of 9/11, worldwide terrorism directed against US targets, and insurmountable and spreading conflicts have been directly related to Israel’s economic isolation of and military actions toward the Palestinian people and the continuing US support of Israel’s policies. Within the United States, critics of US support of Israel are excoriated and politicians are intimidated such that policy debate on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians inside Israel as well as economic embargoes and military attacks on interim Palestinian institutions and people in Gaza and the West Bank are largely censored from public discourse.
The particular mantra of rightwing groups, Republicans, Trump administration spokespersons, and many Democrats in 2017 is to label any critics of Israeli policy as “anti-Semitic.” Some of the strongest voices opposed to the total United States military and economic support for Israel come from progressives in the Jewish community. More Jewish people are becoming critics of Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people. Many of these people proudly identify with their historical heritage of support for social and economic justice all around the world and are outraged by recent disingenuous claims of sympathy for the Jewish people from Conservative politicians in both political parties, think tanks and religious lobby groups, and sectors of the mainstream media.
Politics and Economics of the Middle East Today
Nar Arafeh, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, challenges the idea that economic development in the West Bank and Gaza alone could bring peace to the region. She argues that unless economic change is coupled with increased Palestinian political rights in the region resistance to Israel’s political/military domination will continue.
As to economics, although Palestine is expected to experience 3.5% growth in GDP in 2017, that growth is largely based on construction, presumably rebuilding housing units destroyed by Israeli bombs. She points out that the boost in construction in recent years in the West Bank and Gaza is coupled with economic stagnation including low growth and inadequate wages, increased unemployment, and declining foreign assistance. Israel controls the flow of labor from the West Bank to production sites as needed and limits more substantially Palestinian labor from Gaza. Arafeh says that “The ‘Palestinian Economy’ is a political construct, shaped to serve the more powerful player: Israel.” (Nar Arafeh, “Palestine’s Economic Outlook-April, 2017. Al Jazeera).
And on the human rights front, an Amnesty International report entitled, “Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories Report 2016/2017” stated that:
Israeli forces unlawfully killed Palestinian civilians, including children, in both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and detained thousands of Palestinians from the OPT who opposed Israel’s continuing military occupation, holding hundreds in administrative detention. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained rife and was committed with impunity. The authorities continued to promote illegal settlements in the West Bank, including by attempting to retroactively “legalize” settlements built on private Palestinian land, and severely restricted Palestinians’ freedom of movement, closing some areas after attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. Israeli forces continued to blockade the Gaza Strip, subjecting its population of 1.9 million to collective punishment, and to demolish homes of Palestinians in the West Bank and of Bedouin villagers in Israel’s Negev/Naqab region, forcibly evicting residents.
What Does This Mean?
First, violence and political instability in the world is intimately connected to the absence of economic well-being. The economic crises faced in recent years in the industrial capitalist world are small compared to the punishing crises of survival that some countries of the Global South still experience in the 21st century; countries and territories of the Middle East are prime examples.
Second, data suggests clearly that in the occupied territories (the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, all conquered in the 1967 Middle East war) the notion of “precariousness” (joblessness, land theft, food insecurity, grotesque economic and political inequalities) is an apt way to describe the condition of the Palestinian people.
Third, shifting currents in Palestinian politics have been connected to patterns of economic growth and decay. In the 1950s and 1960s, secular leaders in the Arab world, including Palestinians, offered a vision of economic change and political autonomy for their people that was processed in Washington and European capitals as threatening to dominant economic interests. President Nasser of Egypt who opened relations with the Soviet Union and began to talk about Arab Socialism was a prime target of concern. Paradoxically, the US began to support political actors in the region with a religious agenda, countries such as Saudi Arabia and later in the 1980s followers of Osama Bin Laden who were fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In the 1980s also the United States supported Hamas in Palestine.
There is no easy solution but the United States and other wealthy countries have an obligation to participate in a disinterested economic reconstruction of the occupied territories and support for complete political autonomy of the Palestinian people. Only that will break the back of anger, hatred, and political instability. The United States should stop fueling the violence in the region by ending military aid to Israel. Economic reconstruction requires negotiation toward the creation of a viable secular Israeli state in which all participate or a separate Palestinian state with land repatriation and guarantees of security from Israeli military attack. In addition, Israeli settlements in the West Bank need to be dismantled. Economic development must be coupled with economic justice.
In the United States, the political climate needs to begin to change so that a resumption of frank dialogue can proceed concerning foreign policy toward Israel, ending the violence in the region, and supporting economic justice and political rights for the Palestinian people. For example, is it wise and humane for the United States to commit $3.8 billion annually in for military aid to Israel for the next ten years?
Labeling those who propose different United States foreign policies toward Israel as anti-Semitic do a disservice to peoples of the region and defame US activists, including Jews, who support peace and justice for the Palestinian people.