West Bank is not a positive template for Gaza

A supplanting of Hamas would not necessarily improve things. Just ask the PA’s constituents.

By Seth Freedman, January 29, 2009

Operation Cast Lead was, in the eyes of many, a means of sending Hamas the stark message that the Israeli government will not tolerate the group’s existence, and will not rest until the Gazan administration is brought to its knees.

At the same time, Israel has adopted a kind of divide-and-rule strategy in relation to the Palestinians in the West Bank. The idea behind this is that treating the residents of Gaza and the West Bank as two separate entities will sow discord among the Palestinian people and encourage them to cleave to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority rather than that of Hamas.

This is backed by a myth that portrays the quality of life in the West Bank as improving along an ever-upward curve and that, if only Gazans would rescind terror in line with their West Bank brethren, they too could enjoy the benefits of an improved lifestyle predicated on a benevolent Israeli occupation. A report published by the IDF civil administration last month boasted of a 24 per cent increase in the West Bank daily wage, albeit from a paltry 70 shekels to a still-miserable 86.9 shekels. Unemployment figures had also improved, down from 19 per cent of the workforce to 16 per cent.

But, as Crisis Action demonstrated in its report on the Quartet’s performance towards the fulfilment of its goals, this small progress falls woefully short of anything worthwhile. Settlement expansion continues at an alarming pace, in vivid contrast to Ehud Olmert’s declared intention at Annapolis; restriction of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank continues to impede their daily lives, dealing a hammer blow to the viability of the Palestinian economy; while tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians still live below the poverty line.

Such conditions provide a fertile climate for rage or despair, as has been witnessed time and again in conflicts worldwide. The most downtrodden people — those with little or nothing to lose — are those most easily manipulated by extremists. Driving the Palestinian population into the welcoming arms of the fundamentalists will foster further violent resistance against the Israeli authorities prompting a strong Israeli response — and so the cycle continues.

In regular visits to the West Bank, I have seen and heard at first hand just how disillusioned the residents have become. Hamas flags fly proudly in villages where, in the past, one would have expected moderate views. Villages which have experienced IDF incursions have turned away from the PA and its President, Mahmoud Abbas, who, they believe, has failed to deliver on his promises.

In the refugee camps of Bethlehem, which I used to patrol during my national service in 2005, and which have shown no signs of improvement in the intervening years, the inhabitants point angrily over the security wall towards Israel when asked who is to blame for their plight.

The decrepit buildings and dirt-strewn streets reflect the lack of prospects for the residents. Here unemployment has hit a staggering 60 per cent, notwithstanding Tony Blair’s assurances that the situation is improving all the time.

On top of the dire economic situation, the fact that settlers continue to maraud around the West Bank with the tacit support of the army, regularly attacking Palestinian farmers and schoolchildren, causes many Palestinians to lose all hope of official intervention on their behalf. The Israelis don’t care, they say, and the PA is toothless — leaving radicals such as Hamas as the only alternative. And until there are real, tangible signs of recovery and rehabilitation on the West Bank, the signs all point to the West Bank becoming the new Gaza, rather than the other way round.

Seth Freedman made aliyah from London in 2004 and served for 15 months in a combat unit of the IDF. He writes for the Guardian and his first book, ‘Can I Bring My Own Gun?’ will be published next week by Five Leaves.

Last updated: 2:25pm, January 29 2009