The Palestine Trade and Investment Forum began in London this weekend. Organised on the behalf of UK Trade and Industry and the Department for International Development, this British government lead initiative welcomed over 40 Palestinian delegates from the occupied West Bank, and just three from besieged Gaza.
Whilst private sector business representatives talked of privatising Palestinian assets, services and natural resources, Israel continues to develop new settlements in the west bank and East Jerusalem, a light railway system on occupied territory and an apartheid wall declared illegal by the International Criminal Court; facts on the ground which fly in the face of any semblance of both sovereignty and territorial contiguity or independent development.
In its decontextualisation of the Palestinian economy from both the conditions of military occupation and colonisation of both land and water resources by Israel in the West Bank, and the ongoing collective punishment of Gaza, the event and the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan it adheres to risks normalisation of occupation and an abandonment of Gaza.
Whilst the UK government’s stance on re-labelling settlemet produce from ‘Made in Israel’ to ‘Made in the West Bank’ could be constructive, vitrtually nothing is being ‘Made in Gaza’.
Here in Gaza trade remains frozen and even humanitarian relief has been reduced to a slow drip feed by Israel. UNRWA’s Director of Operations John Ging explained from his Gaza City Headquarters, ‘What we have seen with Gaza is a process of de-development. Last year it was about destroying the economy, this year the siege is impacting on humanitarian assistance. Even we at the UN are struggling to get in food and medicine – we are not even allowed to bring in sufficient supplies for reserves’.
Israel justifies the sanctions as a form of self-defence against continuing Qassam rocket attacks on its’ citizens. The economic constriction complements the threat of military assault, with foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stating: ‘The state can and should provide an answer to the terror with its available military means. We can not allow Gaza to remain under the control of Hamas’.
But the human rights crisis in Gaza continues. According to the Palestinian Independent Commission on Human Rights 80% of the population are living on less than two dollars a day, unemployment hovers at 60% and just 195 factories remain open out of 3900 in 2005. 40,000 agricultural workers have lost their income and piles of export-ready produce including Gaza’s famous succulent strawberries risk rotting due to a ban on all exports. UN housing projects and schools remain unbuilt leaving a skyline of stark, skeletal structures aborted by Israel’s ban on materials.
But if the Gazan limb of the dismembered Palestinian body politic is being kept on a drip, surviving through intermittent doses of international aid, then the crippled West Bank is in the process of being strapped up for shock therapy.
The UK’s Department for International Development provided ‘substantial technical support’ for The Palestinian Reform and Development Plan 2008-2010.
The Palestine Plan follows a typical DFID free-market directive. It opts for the standard blasts of evisceration of public services (already torpedoed by Israeli tanks and fighter jets since the Al Aqsa Intifada), privatisation of assets and resources (Israel has already helped itself to the Western aquifier through annexing a further 20% of the West Bank’s most fertile land) cuts in Public Spending, wage freezes, price hikes and de-regulated of new industry.
The free trade human rights-free zones it endorses are similar to those which have failed to protect workers, enhance prosperity or generate equality the world over. To apply them within pre-existing human rights free zones risks creating a multi-layered nightmare of de-recognition of not just unions, but a land and a people’s right to self-determination.
The Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) representing over 100 civil society organisations in both the West Bank and Gaza responded to the plan saying, ‘It is astonishing that (it) does not include discussions of the role of civil society organizations and how to preserve and further develop these vital civil society structures in Palestine’.
The network went on to point out: ‘Development planning is not about producing logical frameworks and utilizing economic indicators to improve system performance and measure outcomes. It is first and foremost about human and social development. As such, vision, approach and process are key. Only when these are compatible with a population’s real needs can a development plan hope to produce positive results.’
The UK’s Department for International Development, UKTI and the World Bank have failed to reflect participatory, democratic, socially focused priorities in their shaping of the plan. Instead, the corporate sector is the key actor to bring prosperity to Palestine in a textbook neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Plan.
Instituting free market capitalism and the insecurity, exploitation and inequality it generates and thrives upon, under conditions of Israeli occupation spells disempowerment and a composition of classes that could antagonise existing politically sectarian and class conflicts in Palestine.
Imposition of this structural adjustment plan is probably only possible because of the conditions of occupation, yet decisions made into facts on the ground now could rob future generations of the freedom to decide what kind of land, economy and society they and their children will live and learn in. History, present day and past has taught us that longterm deals signed whilst countries are institutionally weak or occupied, privilege occupiers’ interests and power structures.
In the final instance, the plan, according to Palestinian civil society groups lacks the political will and external support to make any independent development a reality. ‘We maintain that the experience of the past 13 years, massive aid that failed to generate economic growth and to take into consideration the root causes of poverty, namely, the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land, only led to aid failure and the emergence of a systems crisis that can come in the way of the best development plan. Without tangible and concrete political interventions by the international community this plan will not depart far from the runway’.
Today, the investment and reform many Palestinians are looking for is not in the privatisation of their economy and a slow creep towards a normalisation of apartheid, but in real and prompt political reform, rooted in justice and the will of the international community to finally enforce international law and UN resolutions on the return of land, refugees, sovereignty and unity.