Palestinians Protest PA on Oslo Anniversary
Palestinians continued to take to the streets last week to protest the deteriorating economic conditions in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The protests around the West Bank coincide with the 19th anniversary of the Oslo Accords signing on September 13, 1993, an agreement that laid the groundwork for the PA and came with flaws and shortcomings that many believe are now harming the Palestinian economy and compromising a future viable state.
Fayyad is a renowned U.S.-educated economist, credited for attracting international donors, especially from the West, to invest in institutions that will provide the building blocks of a Palestinian state. However, many Palestinians have been critical of Palestinian reliance on foreign aid. Now that donors are scaling back or withholding pledged funds, the PA is unable to pay the salaries of nearly 150,000 people on the government payroll, many protestors blame Fayyad. The PA’s recent decision to increase revenue by raising taxes is also a driving force behind the protestors’ call to have him ousted. On Tuesday, Fayyad announced he will reverse the tax hikes, but activists say that is not enough to solve the economic crisis that has contributed to a 19 percent unemployment rate in the West Bank.
In addition to citing the decrease in foreign aid, both Fayyad and Abbas say the Israeli occupation is hindering economic development by restricting movement and access to resources. Abbas defended his government by saying, “We are not free to bring in whatever we want, goods or people, or to export… So long as there is occupation, I cannot do what I want.”
Another issue drawing the protestors’ ire is the Oslo Accords. The first Oslo Agreement in 1993 established the Palestinian Authority and allowed it to set up limited self-government in parts of the West Bank for a period of five years while final status negotiations were to take place. 19 years later, the PA is still in control and negotiations have not progressed. Months after Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat signed Oslo Accords at the White House the parties added an annex called the Paris Protocol that determined customs and tax rates. Palestinian news agency Ma’an News explains, “The Protocol gave Israel sole control over Palestine's external trade, and collection of customs duties… It also pegs VAT [Value Added Tax] to Israeli tax rates, currently at 17 percent, despite the huge disparity in average Palestinian and Israeli incomes.”
This week officials in the PA inquired about reevaluating the protocol to find a better solution, but Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon went on Israeli radio and rejected the idea since there has been no progress on the diplomatic front and Palestinians are threatening to take unilateral steps in the UN. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a transfer of $63 million in tax revenues that Israel has collected on behalf of the PA.. He said,
“We are working on several fronts in order to help the Palestinian (National) Authority cope with its economic problems. We have made several changes in the taxation agreements. We are advancing certain transfers… Of course, there is a global reality and it is also related to the internal management of every economy, but for our part we are making efforts to help the Palestinian (National) Authority survive this crisis. I hope that they will succeed in doing so; this is in our common interest.”
On September 12, 2005, Israel completed the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. That day, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told the media, “We are leaving with our heads held high. The decision to leave Gaza was made out of strength, and with it comes a hope for a better future.” The Palestinian Authority gained control of Gaza that day, marking the first time that it had control of a defined territory. The New York Times reported that, “Gaza is seen as a testing ground for Palestinian aspirations of statehood.”
Seven years later, the situation in Gaza has deteriorated. While the freedom of movement briefly eased inside the strip following the disengagement, after the 2006 elections that brought Hamas into the government Israel began a blockade that became even more severe after Hamas’ forcible takeover of the coastal enclave. Today, Israel has an ongoing aerial, land and sea blockade and total control over the movement of goods, people, water and electricity in the region.
A report released by the UN last month highlights the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. By 2020, estimates indicate that Gaza will have over half a million more people and if the infrastructure does not keep pace, the situation could become drastically worse. In 2011 the unemployment rate was 29 percent and 60 percent of households were food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity. The report says to keep up with the population increase, 440 additional schools, 800 hospital beds and more than 1,000 doctors will be needed in the next eight years.
On Monday, September 10, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned human rights abuses by both Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli government in a speech to the Human Rights Council on September 10. He told the body, “The situation in Gaza remains tense and troubling, with indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes and incursions…. I urge Israel to lift its harsh restrictions in order to ease the plight of civilians and bring an end to the closure. Keeping a large and dense population in unremitting poverty is in nobody's interest except that of the most extreme radicals in the region.”
Last week there were more incidents of defacement and violence against Palestinians and their property by Israeli settlers. On September 12, vandals with suspected “nationalistic motives” spray-painted a mosque south of Hebron, scrawling “Price tag Migron” in reference to a recently dismantled settler outpost.
Last week in Jerusalem, an alleged racially motivated assault left one Arab man hospitalized after his car was surrounded and he was beaten. Six Israeli teens were indicted the crime on Wednesday and face aggravated battery charges; two of them are also accused of theft.
As a result of the rise of hate crimes and price tag incidents, Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch announced this week that a new police unit will be established to combat the phenomenon. He said, “We must institute a zero tolerance policy against terror, the desecration of religious institutions, attacks on symbols of governance and attacks commonly known as 'price tag.’”
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops send a letter to Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal in response to last week’s price tag attack on a monastery. He wrote, “We join in your call to Israeli authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice and “to ensure a ‘teaching of respect’ in schools” so as to put an end to acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence…. Our prayers continue to be with you in this trying time as we continue to hope that dialogue and understanding involving all parties in the Holy Land will triumph over division and intolerance.”
Reuters explores the challenges facing farmers in the West Bank. The author cites a report that says, “The economy has lost access to 40 per cent of West Bank land, 82 percent of its ground water, and more than two thirds of its grazing land.” The limited resources mean Palestinian farmers cannot match the quality or prices of Israeli produce.
Linda Gradstein writes about a group of Israeli and Palestinian women who have opened small businesses together to sell jointly made craft projects. One woman said, “For the past three years, we have been meeting in homes in Israel and Palestine and learning about each other’s reality. We are trying to promote peace in our own small way.”
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.