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Making the West Bank a model

By Shlomo Brom, Bitterlemons, 21.05.07

The repeated outbreaks of violence in the Gaza Strip are both a result and a cause of a spreading chaos. That chaos offers no hope for a stable Palestinian government of any kind (national unity or partisan) that is capable of providing law and order in Gaza. In this environment, there is no real possibility of improving the socio-economic conditions of the people, and substantial Israeli-Palestinian engagement is out of the question.
At the same time, the West Bank is an oasis of relative quiet and stability. This is mostly because of the operations of the Israeli security forces that are trying to prevent terrorist activities by Palestinian armed groups, and that as a byproduct also subdue potential clashes between Hamas and Fateh. Hamas is too weak to be capable of involvement in a Gaza-style struggle. The West Bank of course has its own share of armed gangs and warlords, but their freedom of action is much constrained.
This situation encourages us to examine the idea of making the West Bank a positive model for the Palestinian people. In a nutshell, the idea is not to waste money in trying to improve the situation in the Gaza Strip but rather to invest most of the resources made available by the international community, and the Palestinian Authority tax money collected by Israel, in a bold attempt to dramatically improve the economic situation in the West Bank.
There remains of course the ongoing need to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip; certain resources have to be invested in food and medical supplies for Gaza. But any additional resources channeled toward improving the physical infrastructure or establishing economic enterprises in this region would clearly be a waste of money.
If most of the resources were invested in the West Bank, generating a visible improvement in the living conditions of the population based on cooperation among Palestinians, the international community and Israel, every Palestinian would be capable of looking at the two models, the Gaza model and the West Bank model, concluding by himself which is better and making a choice. Hopefully this would bring about a popular revolt of the people of Gaza against the armed groups, the warring political factions and the warlords.
In this context the model of Northern Ireland is very helpful. The movement toward a settlement started there when the people revolted against the violence. Eventually no political movement can survive when it loses popular support, and that might be the only credible threat that pushes the different Palestinian political factions to change their conduct.
The execution of this idea is not simple--for Palestinians, for Israelis and for the international community. For Palestinians, any notion of making a distinction between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip may seem a horrendous idea that aims at further separation between the two parts of the Palestinian homeland. Hamas would certainly not accept the idea. But the Palestinian presidency could be persuaded that this is separation for the purpose of true unification further down the road.
Israel also has to contribute its share. Since the main inhibitor of the West Bank economy is the constraints Israel has imposed on the movement of goods and people, it would have to substantially relax those limitations on freedom of movement. That means taking security risks--but for the promise of real progress. If the Palestinian presidency agrees to cooperate, then Israel could also deliver the tax money it collects to the president's office--conditioned on the operation of a monitoring mechanism that assures that the money is spent for this purpose. Israel could also consider increasing at least temporarily the quota of workers from the West Bank who are allowed to work in Israel.
The international community would have to overcome its impulse to divert resources to the area where the crisis seems most acute. It would have to be convinced that under present circumstances no amount of assistance would raise the Gaza Strip from destitution, while in the West Bank there is a chance to build something that is viable and could spread later to Gaza.
The international Quartet may be the right forum to adopt this line of action, based on consultations with the Palestinians and Israel. If the Quartet could not reach agreement on such an idea, because for example the Russians did not want to oppose Hamas, it could be executed by a coalition of the willing. In any case, the different parties would have to operate in close coordination. Hence a steering committee comprising representatives of the Quartet, the Palestinian presidency and Israel should be established to elaborate a work-plan, coordinate and monitor its execution.
As it seems that in the present cul-de-sac conventional ideas do not work any more, perhaps it is time to test non-conventional ideas like this one.- Published 21/5/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at INSS, the Institute for National Security Studies (formerly JCSS) at Tel Aviv University.