Friday, October 29, 2010

The financial media discovers Gaza


Writing 2 weeks ago in the UK newspaper, The Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens summarised an extensive visit to Gaza, which he described as “world’s most misrepresented location“.

Hitchens coverage was the first amongst several similar stories in the international, all with a similar theme. I don’t think it (Gaza) is a paradise, or remotely normal………..There are dispiriting slums that should have been cleared decades ago, people living on the edge of subsistence. There is danger. And most of the people cannot get out. But it is a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting, than that………

But if you think Israel is the only problem, or that Israelis are the only oppressors hereabouts, think again. Realise, for a start, that Israel no longer rules Gaza. Its (former) settlements are ruins.

Even when, as in Gaza, there is no way out, morality patrols sweep through restaurants in search of illicit beer and women smoking in public, affronting the 14th Century values of Hamas.

Hitchens is going against a decade or so of politically correct wisdom. Two years ago, Time Magazine pleaded: “Please spare a thought for the starving Palestinians of Gaza. There are 1.5 million of them”. In parallel, and industry of NGOs has arisen, although they seem content to criticise Israel but never the excesses of Palestinian rule.

So what is the truth? was there ever hunger? Has Gaza suddenly discovered gold? Has it been wealthy all the time, but nobody really reported the facts? As Hitchens also commented, the truth in the Middle East is rarely what you see on the surface, so let’s dig a bit more.

Go to any IMF or World Bank report on the Palestinian economy – and Gaza in particular – and you will find a depressing set of economic statistics. Every since September 2000 when Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority launched the Second Intifada, the economy has nose dived.

But if financial growth in Gaza went backwards, then previously it must have achieved a “higher” level from which to fall. And this is where the work of Sebastien Dessus for the World Bank is so valuable. Professionally, he has been tracking the Palestinian economy for over a decade. Note what he says about the period from the onset of Israeli rule to the start of the Intifada.

While real GDP grew by 5.5 percent on average in West Bank and Gaza from 1968 to 2000, it only grew by 4.2 percent in Israel. During the same time, population grew by 2.9 percent in WBG and 2.4 percent in Israel.

Does that put the Palestinians as one of the most successful economies in the last quarter of the twentieth century? Bring on the Intifada, suicide bombings and attacks from Gaza, and the Palestinian population suddenly found themselves without 125,000 jobs in Israel. And these were considered relatively well paid positions. Couple this with Israeli defensive measures - justified and / or repressive – and you have the recipe for a mega economic dip.

For the Palestinian leadership, the question was did the political uplift justify the financial turmoil, a debate I will not deal with. Certainly, key personalities did not suffer. Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan amassed a personal fortune since his PA career began in the late 1980s, organising youth mobs in Gaza City. Hamas has collected a wealth of taxes from the smuggling industry, leading to “unprecedented social mobility” according to one local source.

And today? As Hitchens writes, life in Gaza is not a picnic, but neither is it a disaster. Further recent evidence?

* The Financial Times has described the al-Deira luxury hotel, which has remained open despite Israeli measures and the repressive practices of the Hamas government.
* Mai Yaghi, a local Gaza reporter has detailed how the old smuggling tunnels have a completely new and ironic purpose , because “lifting of restrictions (by Israel) in recent months has seen consumer goods pour into the Hamas-run territory through Israeli crossings, transforming the tunnels that once served as a lifeline for Gaza into its sole export channel.”
* The EU’s representative to the West Bank, Gaza and UNRWA, Christian Berger, not considered a friend of Israel, has been quoted as saying that the area is ”full of consumer goods”.
* And if Berger feels that there is not enough ready cash and actual purchases, he should recall that the largest employer in Gaza is the civil service. The Palestinian Authority is still paying the salaries of these 67,000 people, even if many are paid up Hamas officials.

Is Gaza rich? No. It still needs the tons of daily aid, which Israel facilitates. On the other hand, a utube video from an unknown source shows beyond doubt just what multiple resources are available in wide parts of the territory.

And is there a lesson for the future? Look what is happening in the West Bank. Hatred of Israel may still predominate. But much of the violence has been laid to one side. As Time Magazine now observes.

Ramallah’s first five-star hotel, a Mövenpick, is opening this month. Across the West Bank, similar scenes are unfolding. Building cranes pierce the sky. Outside Nablus, new car dealerships sell everything from BMWs to Hyundais. Inside the ancient city, the first movie house to open in 20 years, Cinema City, is hugely popular. Last year the Hirbawi Home Center, a five-story shopping mall selling luxury items like plasma TVs, opened just outside Jenin.

Indeed, the IMF has reported that the Palestinian economy is on track to grow 8% in 2010.

So, the international media have confirmed that Gaza is not an economic prison. One question remains. As Tom Gross, a leading commentator, pondered; why does the BBC, possibly the world’s largest communicator, seem determined to ignore this story?

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