Rabbi Kenneth Chasen is the latest to offer a glowing report of the Palestinian-state-in-the-making supposedly being built by Salam Fayyad, a political unknown until he was boosted from obscurity by the George W. Bush administration and installed as the unelected “prime minister” of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
But the booming businesses and sleek glass towers Chasen raves about in Ramallah are part of a mirage, a narrative in which a docile Palestinian leadership “reforms” Palestine from within, making little or no noise about the ongoing depredations of Israeli occupation.
Chasen may be pleased that Fayyad barely uses the word “occupation,” but that doesn’t make the occupation any less real for the millions of Palestinians who suffer under it. As B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, reported last month, Israeli settlements now control 42% of the West Bank. Virtually all of the Jordan Valley is off limits to Palestinians as Israel tightens its grip under the cover of a “peace process” that perpetually goes nowhere. In July alone, Israel demolished 141 homes and buildings belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, the highest number since 2005, according to Human Rights Watch.
As for economic growth — Chasen claims an impressive 7% a year — this too is a mirage. There is in Ramallah a tiny, wealthy elite that has benefited from its connections and aid largesse, but in the rest of the West Bank, the situation is dire. Seventy-nine percent of families in “Area C,” the three-fifths of the West Bank under direct Israeli military control, are chronically short of food, compared with 61% of families in the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to a recent Save the Children study.
It is likely that much of the “growth” in an economy that has shrunk dramatically in recent years is a statistical artifact of the large amounts of humanitarian aid being given to the Palestinian Authority. But this aid does nothing to tackle the real cause of poverty: the fact that Palestinians under occupation have no freedom to develop themselves and their resources in a sustainable way. As Palestinian American entrepreneur Sam Bahour wrote recently in The Hill, only an end to Israel’s U.S.-subsidized occupation can unleash the economic potential in Palestine.
Chasen acknowledges that Fayyad rules in an “authoritarian” way, but this is putting it mildly. Last Wednesday, Palestinian Authority thugs raided a meeting of dozens of Palestinian political activists opposed to the authority taking part in new direct talks with Israel while settlement construction and other repression continue.
Palestine’s Al-Haq human rights group condemned the attack, in which its staff along with many other individuals and journalists were assaulted, as further evidence of the “police state” the authority has become.
Claims that Fayyad is building the “institutions” of a future Palestinian state are equally hollow. As George Washington University professor Nathan Brown noted in a recent Carnegie Foundation analysis, Fayyad’s regime “is not just postponing a democratic system; it is actively denying it.” Brown concludes that contrary to glowing write-ups in the U.S. media, there has been little or no institution-building and that “ironically, there was more institution-building and civil society development under Yasser Arafat than there has been” since 2007, when Fayyad was installed without the legally required approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Fayyad’s popularity around the world may indeed be on the rise, as Chasen claims. But support from foreign governments does not give Fayyad a popular mandate among Palestinians, the only people who should choose Palestinian leaders. Fayyad’s party ran in the 2006 legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and got just over 2% of the vote. Hamas, which had been observing a unilateral cease-fire, won the election and immediately invited all of the losers to join it in a broad national unity coalition, but it was never allowed to govern as Israel, the United States and other allies launched a determined effort to undermine it and overturn the election. The result was bitter internal Palestinian fighting and the devastating split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
What’s even more disturbing than Chasen’s support for an “authoritarian” regime, which many Palestinians view in the same light as Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime in France during World War II, is his seeming endorsement of the “carrot and stick” approach to Gaza. One and a half million people are imprisoned in Gaza and deprived of basic needs in order to teach them a lesson: Support the U.S.- and Israeli-backed strongman in Ramallah, or continue to languish in misery. Absolutely no political goal can justify such collective punishment.
The enthusiasm among Israel’s supporters for Fayyad is not hard to understand. Chasen himself warns that “the demographic clock ticks loudly toward the day when the growing population of non-Jews in Israel and the territories it controls” exceeds the number of Jews. That day may have already arrived. Just as the apartheid regime in South Africa invented the nominally independent “bantustans” ruled by favorite strongmen to create the fiction of black self-determination, Zionists hope that an illusory Palestinian “state” can serve as a fig leaf to cover the reality of Israeli apartheid.
Ali Abunimah is the author of “One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.”