Romney, economic realities and one Palestinian’s story

Murad’s story typifies Palestinians’ experience of running into proverbial roadblocks at every turn of their development

Palestinians displaced from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon take part in a protest against the cessation of rebuilding the camp, at Martyrs'' square in Beirut
Palestinians receive international aid from the EU, the Arab League and a sizable package from the US [Reuters]

The combined results and fall-out from the Oslo peace accords, Israel’s siege on Gaza and the loss of freedom of movement under a military occupation are some of the reasons why the Palestinian economy barely sputters alongside a more robust Israeli one. The anaemic economy has nothing whatsoever to do with a less-than-desirable Palestinian culture, as presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Israeli guests at a $25,000-a-head fundraiser in Jerusalem on Monday.

By now, Romney’s comments have been thoroughly dissected, deconstructed and also, from Romney’s camp, even denied. But they bear looking into again in light of the personal story of a Palestinian agronomy student who wants to contribute positively to his society, finding himself thwarted by the occupation and the maze of rules governing international aid agencies. His story typifies Palestinians’ experience of running into proverbial and actual roadblocks at every turn of their personal development – while it also helps explain that economic problems are occupation-induced, not the result of a population devoid of a “divine Midas touch”, which Romney intimated “Providence” bestowed upon Israeli Jews.

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‘will escalate tensions’

Murad Amro, is a 23-year-old agricultural student from Hebron who goes by the name of “Murad Palestina” on Facebook. According to his timeline, Murad divides his time between his studies, his horses and participating in non-violent resistance to Israel’s occupation with the group Youth Against Settlements. When his posts aren’t related to the group’s efforts to open Shuhada Street, which is closed to Palestinians, or documenting violence at the hands of Jewish settlers, they reveal the reflective and romantic side of a young man who says he wants to “plant peace in the hearts of all people”. 

Murad’s fears

I came to know Murad on Facebook over the past two years, and heard how he takes great pleasure in riding his horses, meeting with friends and, through his photography, depicting the pungent beauty of Palestine’s landscape, as in the case of Hebron’s grape festival [Ar]. But, in early June, I was alarmed when he wrote in all caps, “I AM NOT A HUMAN BEING!!!” followed by a series of haunting questions: “What am I?” “What’s this world?” “[is there] no one in this world [who] can hear me and listen to me?” 

Romney’s pandering comments to the elite Israelis who attended his fundraiser confirm Murad’s fears: The man who may be the next president of the United States has chosen to discount Palestinians as inferior, even sub-human, and therefore not worthy of being heard.  

Murad’s distress came after learning he did not get an internship with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a special agency of the United Nations – not because his credentials were lacking, but simply because of who he is. He graduated on June 20 from Al-Quds Open University with a degree in plant production and hopes, one day, to go on to earn a PhD, he said. The internship would have been an important learning tool toward his goal of contributing to Palestinian agriculture. But IFAD refused to consider his application because Palestine is not a UN member state. 

Unfortunately we require our interns to have a nationality from a member state and Palestine is not part of this … So unfortunately, we would not be able to consider the application. I hope this helps,” a human resources clerk reportedly wrote in an email response to his application. 

Witness: Valleys of hope and despair


While Murad’s story is indeed sad, it is not unusual, said economist Samia Botmeh, director of the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University in Ramallah. The occupation “undermines your humanity and it creates frustration”, she said. “If you are not a country member (of the UN), you don’t have access to the same rights as other people around the world.”

Palestinians receive international aid from the European Union and the Arab League as well as a hefty financial package from the United States. Why hasn’t that been enough to establish a vibrant economy with a robust GDP? The answer lies in large part with the role donor agencies play and Israel’s attempts to thwart the growing global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement by convincing the West that “positive investment” in the West Bank is the best way to help achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Within the past several weeks, two mainstream Protestant organisations voted in quadrennial general assemblies to engage in this “positive investment” in Palestine. The votes were consolation prizes; compromises that came after the defeat of historic resolutions to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Delegates to the United Methodist Church in May and the Presbyterian Church USA in July voted against divesting from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett Packard after prolonged and heavy lobbying by more than 1,000 rabbis and Zionist organisations, such as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. 

International aid

But while BDS advocates know their efforts eventually may force Israel to abide by international law and end the occupation, positive investment in Palestinian institutions – while they are still under the nexus of Israel and Palestinian Authority control – will do little to bring about a political solution to the Palestinians’ suffering. In fact, such efforts coupled with massive international humanitarian aid programmes prolong the occupation by relieving Israel of its legal obligations to provide an adequate quality of life to the people it is occupying. In other words, well-meaning aid agencies and institutions “investing positively” in Palestine actually are paying for the occupation and allowing Israel to continue to flaunt international law with impunity. 

Palestinians receive among the highest amount of aid per capita in the world, Botmeh said. Between 1994 and 2006, international donors poured $8 billion into the West Bank and Gaza, yet Palestinians are poorer and worse off than ever before. The aid had three purposes: to support the peace process leading to a two-state solution, to foster social and economic development, and to promote institution-building, according to Ann Le More, author of International Assistance to the Palestinians After Oslo (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2009). 

Israel continues to build settlements
on Palestinian land


But the vast amounts of aid pouring into the West Bank has had the opposite effect. Instead of building an economic infrastructure, it has de-developed Palestinian society and made Palestinians unwillingly dependent upon external donors.

“In addition to funding a distorted Palestinian political system, the aid industry directly removes from Israel the burden of responsibility for the destruction of Palestinian lives, livelihood and infrastructure. In doing so, it allows Israel to focus its resources and efforts to the acceleration of Palestinian poverty, the expansion of settlements, the expropriation of Jerusalem, and the destruction of Gaza,” Samer Abdelnour wrote in a March 2011 policy brief for Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy think-tank based in Washington DC. 

Even after Oslo’s promises dissipated among a string of Israel’s broken agreements, donor agencies did not readjust their mechanisms to deal with facts on the ground and, instead, clung to the now-outmoded notion that aid must support the “peace process”, author Ali Abunimah wrote in his 2009 review of Le More’s book. Positive investment has poured millions into infrastructure and programs of the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, which is just another enforcer of Israeli policies. 

In fact, the total cost of Israel’s occupation to the Palestinian economy was about $7bn in 2010, almost 85 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy and the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said the economy is actually faltering. Rising unemployment and inflation caused a 2.6 per cent decline in purchasing power in 2010, when West Bank unemployment stood at 25 per cent. And one-third to one-half of the PA’s budget is aid-subsidised, according to various economic reports. 

Aid is important and even necessary – the United Nations says about 80 per cent of the Palestinians in Gaza are dependent upon food aid because of the siege – but it only prolongs the occupation if it is not tied to political steps to force Israel’s hand. “In a strategic sense it enables Israel to carry on with its occupation without being challenged by the international community,” Botmeh said. 

Hope lies in resistance

So while aid agencies and donor countries continue their myopic attempts to exchange aid for an artificially imposed two-state solution, what is happening with the very Palestinians this aid is supposed to help? Not much, to all intents and purposes. 

“Aid to the Palestinians was only ever marginally about the Palestinians themselves,” Abunimah wrote. 

Despite its reported refusal to consider Murad’s internship application, IFAD does have projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Since 1994, in response to the Oslo Accords, and to “create an environment conducive to peace and security”, the agency has provided nearly $15 million in loans and grants in rural development programmes, according to its website. 

The agency is an international financial institution in “unique partnership” with 168 countries belonging to OPEC, other developing countries and the OECD, to which Israel was admitted in 2010. “IFAD works with poor rural people to enable them to grow and sell more food, increase their incomes and determine the direction of their own lives,” Farhana Rahman, IFAD media chief, wrote in an email in response to questions about Murad’s case. Yet it could not consider an internship application from one West Bank agronomy student. 

Murad said he wants to be able to determine the direction of his own life but is finding it almost impossible to do, thanks to the occupation and the intractable rules of this aid agency. 

“It was so bad for me,” Murad said about the rejection. “I was shocked and am still shocked from them. Now I am not sure if am a human being or not. I asked myself [if] there are two kinds of people in this world and we are not part of humanity?” 

Botmeh acknowledges the dilemma of young Palestinians such as Murad, but she’s hopeful, nonetheless. 

Her hope lies in resistance in the form of BDS. The 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions which, in the absence of international political and diplomatic pressure, hopes economic pressure will force Israel to comply with international law. BDS calls for Israel to end the occupation, grant refugees their internationally guaranteed right to return to their homeland and afford Palestinian citizens of Israel equal rights. BDS is trying to shift the balance of power by asking the international community to “help us, not in terms of providing tools to survive the occupation but pressuring Israel to end the occupation, and that would allow us to fend for ourselves”, Botmeh added. 

Already there have been stunning successes globally. Last month in the United States, pension fund giant TIAA CREF divested its Social Choice Fund of nearly $73 million in Caterpillar stock following the corporation’s reported removal from the Morgan Stanley Capital Investment (MSCI) list of socially responsible companies. And Carmel Agrexco, which was a partially state-owned Israeli exporter of Israeli produce, including, it is understood, some 60-70 per cent of the agricultural produce grown in the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, was forced into liquidation in 2011. These are just two examples of many that can be found on the BDS National Committee’s website

And hope also comes through the courage of people such as “Murad Palestina”, who are willing to tell their stories to the rest of the world in order to raise awareness – not only of the occupation but, as in this case, the realities surrounding the destructive impact of international aid and positive investment. Mitt Romney may be too busy vying for “the Jewish vote” in November to pay heed, but Murad can rest assured that the rest of us are listening.

Kristin Szremski is the director of media and communications for the American Muslims for Palestine, a national grassroots organisation.

Follow her on Twitter: @kristin_scribe