Thursday, February 26, 2009

Interesting only when they are violent

Meron Benvenisti

The accepted dictum is that the situation in the occupied territories interests Israelis only when something violent takes place there and when the events fit with the standard narrative about the settlers, the roadblocks and the injustices of the occupation. The truth of this maxim is proven again in that change for the better in the security situation and the economy and the general atmosphere in the West Bank merits very little interest and negligible reporting. So processes with far-reaching implications for the political reality and the arguments accompanying the establishment of the Netanyahu government do not receive the attention they deserve. There is no need for thorough research to grasp that the situation in the West Bank is different from what emerges in severe reports about backwardness, unemployment, and economic under-development there and the general feeling that the territories are dangerous and violent.

It is sufficient to stroll through Ramallah to feel the lively and relaxed atmosphere. The animated economic activity is evident. The improvement can be seen also in cities that were the focus of violence such as Nablus and Hebron. Journalists who visit the Jenin area report with amazement how calm and organized life is there, and how the polished Palestinian policemen are in control of the area that not long ago was the stronghold of armed men. Israeli Arabs have returned to shopping in the markets of Jenin and Tul Karm, despite the ban on this.

The data confirm the picture of economic recovery. During the past year, there was an increase of more than a third in commercial activity, and despite the signs of recession, the rise in the standard of living is continuing. True, the per capita Gross Domestic Product is still less than one-tenth of the Israeli GDP, and the prosperity is misleading since it is based on the flow of donations from abroad, which despite the attempt to direct them to productive channels, encourage wasteful consumption. But the aim of the donors is to provide political support for the Palestinian Authority and to fight Hamas by economic means.

They are apparently succeeding in this. Fact: The West Bank remained calm during the fighting in Gaza and was not dragged into reactions of protest, in fact even less so than among Israeli Arabs. Security officials are aware of this improvement and they are doing away with roadblocks, making the movement of traffic easier and even forgoing sections of the separation fence in the Jerusalem area.

In view of this improvement, it is perhaps possible that Benjamin Netanyahu is correct in claiming that we should concentrate on "economic peace" and that in view of the lack of a chance for a permanent solution, attempts must be made to continue the economic development in the territories.

This approach should not be rejected with contempt and presented as a foolish attempt to transform nationalist aspirations into promises of economic improvement. The opposite approach also, that of a "peace process" that has still not yielded fruit, can be seen as a way of justifying disregard for reality.

The left-wing camp sticks to its positions and prefers to ignore the economic improvement in the territories since it is forbidden to add a positive coloring to the cruel picture of occupation. The right-wing camp likewise ignores the improvement in the situation; because then "security considerations" will disappear as an excuse for acts of dispossession in the style of the separation fence.

Ignoring the situation is convenient for everyone, and therefore all are partner to the concept that the Arabs are interesting only when they are violent. Under cover of this lack of interest, the Israeli rule over the West Bank is continuing to deepen. It is commonly believed that the Palestinians will begin a third intifada but perhaps this stems from sticking to the concept that they understand nothing but force. Perhaps they have genuinely grown tired of the violence that led them to disaster and they are adopting the strategy of the Israeli Arabs, which forces the Israelis to relate to their non-violent struggle and to their community's accumulation of economic strength.

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