Evelyn Gordon

Analysis from Israel

How do you build a state for people who don’t want it built? That’s the obvious question that emerges from the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Rawabi, the first new Palestinian city. It’s a flagship project that international diplomats routinely laud as a model of Palestinian state-building, but it has won no such praise from fellow Palestinians. Instead, the very people it was meant to benefit are now accusing Rawabi’s founder of collaboration with the enemy for having committed such horrendous crimes – this is not a joke – as providing residents with electricity and running water.

Rawabi was founded with the goal of providing decent, affordable housing for middle-class Palestinians – theoretically a goal that should be welcomed by the Palestinian Authority and its residents, who routinely complain to the international community about how wretched their situation is. From the start, however, the PA did its best to undermine the project; despite repeated promises of support, it refused to provide even the basic infrastructure that most governments routinely provide to new residential developments. Thus as JTA reported last week, Rawabi’s water and sewage system, streets, schools and medical clinic were all financed, like the houses themselves, by entrepreneur Bashar Masri and the Qatari government.

The PA even tried to prevent Rawabi from obtaining running water, by refusing, for five long years, to convene the joint Israeli-Palestinian water committee that’s supposed to approve all new water projects. Rawabi got its water only when Israel finally lost patience and approved its connection to water mains unilaterally.

Despite this obstructionism, Masri persisted, and Rawabi finally opened its doors to new residents in August. But since then, only a trickle of people have moved in, even though Masri claims Rawabi has lower prices and better amenities than nearby Ramallah. Of the 637 apartments that are ready (out of a planned total of over 6,000), only 140 have been occupied, he told JTA.

Partly, this is due to the security situation, Masri said: The wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israelis that began in October has caused an economic downturn in the PA, so people are reluctant to take out loans to buy an apartment.

But as JTA noted, another deterrent is the collaboration accusations being hurled at Masri and Rawabi by fellow Palestinians:

**The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee has accused Masri of “normalization with Israel that helps it whitewash its ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people.” Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior Palestinian official, told Al-Monitor that “all Palestinian factions” should be boycotting Israel, “including Rawabi.”  **

To be clear, Masri isn’t being accused of cooperating with the settlements; in fact, he demanded that every company involved in building Rawabi sign a contract promising not to use any settlement products. What he stands accused of is working with Israeli officials to obtain staples that most other Palestinians also get from Israel, like electricity, water and cement. As Masri pointed out, “Eighty-five percent of the cement in all of Palestine — in all of the West Bank and Gaza — is coming from Israel. In the West Bank, all of our electricity is from Israel.”

But according to the “anti-normalization” activists, it’s better for Palestinians to do without new houses, electricity and running water than to commit the crime of talking with an Israeli.

Nor is Rawabi exceptional; the “anti-normalization” activists are equally opposed to any other effort to build their state by improving Palestinian life. In 2013, for instance, these activists forced two Israeli Arab businessmen to cancel plans to open a branch of an Israeli clothing store in Ramallah. The store would have provided jobs for 150 people, but who needs jobs? In 2012, UNICEF was forced to scrap a plan to build a desalination plant in Gaza – a territory where 90 to 95 percent of the water is deemed polluted – because both the Hamas government and civil-society groups objected to its decision to invite bids from a nearby world leader in desalination technology, aka the Zionist entity. Four years later, Gaza still has no desalination plant, and its residents still drink polluted water.

Over the 21 years of its existence, the PA has been the world’s largest per capita recipient of foreign aid. But it hasn’t built a single hospital or university or rehoused a single resident of the refugee camps located in PA territory; it would rather pay salaries to terrorists and finance campaigns against Israel in international organizations. And now, not content with merely failing to build Palestine itself, it’s even trying to prevent private entrepreneurs from doing so.

Most of the Western world seems desperately eager to create a Palestinian state. But a state isn’t just a flag and a name on a map; it has to be built on the ground as well. And as the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, no amount of outside effort can build a functioning state if a critical mass of local residents isn’t willing to cooperate.

Thus, as long as many Palestinians view ostracizing Israel as higher priority than providing their own people with basic necessities such as electricity and running water, the West’s dream of a Palestinian state will remain a pipe dream. You can’t build a state for people who would rather tear down the neighboring one than build up their own.

Originally published in Commentary on January 29, 2016

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How to Spot a Fake Siege

I can’t help noticing that the “siege of Gaza” has largely disappeared from the headlines. I’d like to think it’s because, having finally seen what a real siege looks like in Syria, many well-meaning folks who used to decry the “siege” of Gaza have realized that Gaza was never actually besieged at all. But for anyone who’s still confused about the difference between a real siege and a fictitious one, here are two simple tests: First, in real sieges, people die of starvation, because the besieger stops food from entering; in fake ones, the “besieger” sends in 2,500 tons of food and medicine per day even during the worst of the fighting. Second, real sieges get swept under the carpet by the UN; only the fake ones merit massive UN publicity. And if you think I’m joking, just compare the actual cases of Madaya and Gaza.

In the Syrian town of Madaya, which is besieged by the Assad regime’s forces, people were reduced to living on grass because no other food was available. Rice, a staple that costs $1.25 per kilogram in other war-ravaged Syrian towns, was so scarce in Madaya that it sold for 200 times that price – an astounding $256 per kilogram, according to a report by Roy Gutman in Foreign Policy. Women were so hungry their breast milk dried up, leaving them unable to feed their babies. At least 32 people have starved to death so far, and hundreds more are at risk of starvation. One man told Gutman everyone in his family had lost 45 pounds – and they are the lucky ones; they’re still alive.

In Gaza, in contrast, even when the “siege” was regularly making headlines, there were never any reports of people dying of hunger, living off grass or unable to feed their babies. That’s because in contrast to Syrian forces, which prevented food and other humanitarian goods from entering Madaya, Israel allowed thousands of tons of such goods into Gaza every day. Even during the 50-day war with Hamas in summer 2014, while Hamas was regularly firing rockets at the only border crossing between Israel and Gaza, Israel managed to get 122,757 tons of food, medicine and fuel into Gaza through that crossing; in normal times, the volume is much higher. Indeed, Gaza’s life expectancy exceeds the global median, surpassing that in 114 countries worldwide. In places that are really besieged, life expectancy tends to be low.

It’s true that Israel maintains a naval blockade to prevent arms smuggling, and it also restricts dual-use imports to Gaza. Cement, for instance, is in short supply there, because Hamas has a nasty habit of using it to build cross-border attack tunnels rather than schools and hospitals for its people. According to Israel Defense Forces estimates, the tunnels uncovered during the 2014 war contained enough cement to build 2,580 homes, 180 schools or 570 medical clinics; today, Hamas is working hard to rebuild those tunnels. Thus Israel allows cement into Gaza only if a reputable international partner takes responsibility for ensuring it is used for civilian rather than military purposes. But import restrictions are not, and never were, remotely comparable to a siege.

If your only source of information is the UN, however, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Gaza’s situation was much worse than that of Madaya – because the UN deliberately concealed Madaya’s situation, despite having known for months that the town was starving.

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