For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has talked about the necessity of bolstering the Palestinian economy. Netanyahu--a former Finance Minister who helped rebuild and reshape Israel's economy earlier this decade--believes that economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza will lead to increased prosperity for Palestinians. And a happy, financially secure Palestinian populace would hopefully be more amenable to peace, or so the thinking goes.
Netanyahu considers this "economic peace" a necessary first step towards achieving any sort of permanent settlement with the Palestinian side, and his government has taken huge steps towards implementing his strategy and working with the Palestinian Authority. So much so, that some are calling what is going on in the West Bank right now (amid a global financial downturn, no less) a bona fide ecomomic boom.
This boom is becoming harder and harder to ignore--the International Monetary Fund said last month that the West Bank's economy is set to grow by 7 percent this year alone. It is a huge story, yet has remained largely unreported by most mainstream media outlets (although the New York Times, surprisingly, has noticed). It was, however, the main topic of my recent conversation with the chief spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich.
The economic situation in the West Bank has improved steadily since 2007 in every area, Leibovich pointed out. Here are some of the numbers:
--As security has been strengthened in the West Bank and suicide bombings have virtually disappeared--thanks overwhelmingly to Israel's much criticized security fence--the tourism industry in the Palestinian areas has rebounded nicely. The city of Bethlehem saw 1 million tourists in 2008, an increase of 500,000 from the previous year. The city of Jericho saw 500,000 tourists in '08, an increase of over 100,000 from 2007. To put it in perspective, the entire state of Israel had 1 million tourists in 2008.
--The unemployment rate in the West Bank in 2002 was a whopping 31 %. This was during the second Intifada, when Palestinian terrorism was at its peak, and the Israeli security fence had not yet been erected. Today, that unemployment rate stands at 15 %. To put it in context, Israel's unemployment rate right now is at 9%, and the U.S. rate is hovering around 10 %. In the longtime West Bank terror hotbed of Nablus, which has now become an unlikely shopping destination, unemployment has dropped all the way down to 6 %.
--229,000 trucks passed between Israel and the West Bank in the first half of 2009, a 41 % increase from 2008. This has helped lead to a 29 % increase in fuel deliveries to the West Bank between '08 and '09.
--In 2008, there were just over 2,000 cars imported into the West Bank. In the first half of 2009, there were 5,472. There has also been an 18% increase in imported cement, from 466,000 tons in 2007 all the way up to 611,000 tons so far in '09.
--The number of employment permits that would allow Palestinians to work inside Israel has more than doubled, to almost 661,000, since 2006. Overnight stays for Palestinian employees have increased signifcantly, and the Allenby Bridge on the Israel-Jordan border is now open 24 hours a day. This helps facilitate the movement of goods to and from the West Bank.
--Since 2007, some 170 roadblocks and checkpoints have been dismantled. You can now drive from Jersualem to the West Bank city of Hebron (site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is the second holiest site in Judaism) in 40 minutes and not hit one checkpoint.
--There are even plans to build a new city, called Roabi, near Ramallah in the West Bank. The city would be designed to attract young, educated professionals.
--Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has much more on the newly thriving West Bank economy--and Israel's indispensable role in helping to foster it--in this must read Wall Street Journal piece.
During our conversation, Lt. Col. Leibovich mentioned three reasons for the improved security situation in the West Bank, which is, obviously, directly linked to the territory's economic fortunes.
1) The combination of the security fence (its importance cannot be overstated) and top-notch security at West Bank border crossings (where Israeli troops still stop Palestinians carrying grenades and knives on a regular basis), not to mention superior operational activity and intelligence work, has led to a breakdown of the terror infrastructure in the West Bank.
2) Leibovich calls the efforts of U.S. General Keith Dayton to train Palestinian security forces a big success. More than 2,100 members of these security forces, trained by Dayton in neighboring Jordan, are now patrolling seven major West Bank cities. She says they have helped reestablish law and order in the West Bank. It is worth mentioning here that serious questions exist about the Dayton program, including what those Palestinian security forces--some of whom are ex-terrorists--will do with their new weaponry and training if things go sour or if Israeli troops ever withdraw from the West Bank entirely. Let's not forget that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's "moderate" Fatah party, which is the main power broker in the West Bank (however tenuously) and has a long history of terrorist activity, has not all of a sudden turned dovish.
3) Leibovich says that while Hamas does have a strong presence in the West Bank, many Palestinians there see the hellish situation in Hamas-ruled Gaza and want no parts of Islamist rule. Let's hope so.
Oren's WSJ piece expounds on that point:
The vitality of the West Bank also accentuates the backwardness and despair prevailing in Gaza. In place of economic initiatives that might relieve the nearly 40% unemployment in the Gaza Strip, the radical Hamas government has imposed draconian controls subject to Shariah law. Instead of investing in new shopping centers and restaurants, Hamas has spent millions of dollars restocking its supply of rockets and mortar shells. Rather than forge a framework for peace, Hamas has wrought war and brought economic hardship to civilians on both sides of the borders.
The people of Gaza will have to take notice of their West Bank counterparts and wonder why they, too, cannot enjoy the same economic benefits and opportunities.
That is the hope--although, as Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once famously pointed out, the Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Just read this sobering YNet piece, which puts the current West Bank economic revivial in the context of previous ones in 1987 and 2000--obviously, two very significant years in recent Israeli/Palestinian history. That's right, both intifadas erupted in times of relative economic stability and growth in the West Bank.
At any rate, the Netanyahu government receives major credit for its economic/security strategy in the West Bank, which is clearly working. But don't expect any to be forthcoming from the likes of the UN, where Israel-bashing is the favorite pasttime (The Goldstone Report is just the latest outrage). One can only hope that the Obama administration will see the obvious wisdom of Netanyahu's "bottom up" approach in the West Bank--and readjust its continued hardline and misguided demands on Israel accordingly. Although I fear the announcement that Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize will certainly do little to dissuade him from his current destructive course in the Middle East.