Violence Ends the Dreams of Many
They returned to build a new Palestine. But after more than two years of deadly, dead-end Mideast violence, many Palestinian businesspeople and professionals have given up.
The early 1990s saw tens of thousands of Palestinians arriving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after years studying or working abroad, mostly in the United States. Lured by landmark peace accords, they brought their children and their expertise and began investing in what they believed would become an independent nation. They built hotels, villas and a stock market.
Today, many of those same people have abandoned the dream, at least for now. As the best-trained, best-educated leave, a void has been created in which political extremists and religious fundamentalists are gaining prominence.
Of five Palestinian professionals interviewed by The Times a few weeks after the intifada began in September 2000, only one is still here.
Nidal Harb, a cardiologist, and his wife, Sana, a university professor, had moved back to their native Ramallah after 20 years in the United States. They wanted their four children to learn Arabic and know their roots. Last year, after a particularly nasty round of shelling in this West Bank city, they left.
Nidal sold the state-of-the-art heart clinic he had opened here. He is practicing today in Iowa.
The difficult decision to leave “was a combination of many factors,” Sana said by e-mail. “Mainly our sad realization that the conflict will not be resolved in the near future.”
Nader Shahin, a U.S.-schooled engineer who created and ran a highly lucrative brokerage firm, left a few months ago for North Carolina. He could no longer turn a profit. He had to rent out his offices to the Canadian Embassy.
The Masri family has it especially tough. Businessman Bashar Masri remains in Ramallah, but his wife, Jane, and their two daughters moved to the suburbs of Washington last year after their house came under fire. He visits periodically.
“The price is high,” he said. “I go there and I’m like a visitor. The girls jump on the bed and celebrate. They’re so happy Daddy is home. But it’s only a week. Then I leave, I come back here, and I’m lonely and miserable.”
A luxury hotel that Masri co-owns is in bankruptcy, and most of his other companies are struggling. Death and destruction, the punishing restrictions imposed by Israel and the corruption and mismanagement of the Palestinian Authority all have derailed the plans Masri once had.
“No doubt, most of my dreams are shattered,” he said. “A lot of people came with such euphoria, to build a state from scratch, a chance that history doesn’t give very often.... And today it’s just a disaster.”
Masri, 41, has kept financially afloat by investing in Internet-related companies that seem to be the one kind of business flourishing in Ramallah these days.
He thinks investors will one day return. And the physical damage to Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip can be repaired, though it will take “years and years and years.” But the minds of Palestinians, as well as Israelis, are poisoned by hatred and politics, Masri said, and he’s not sure that can be changed.
“The progressives and the moderates are gone,” he said. “The young professionals, the ones who came with experience, they’re gone. It’s going to be difficult to bring them back.”