BY KRISTEN ESS
BETHLEHEM, OCCUPIED WEST
BANK—The latest U.N. report says the international aid embargo that is driving the Palestinian Authority to collapse is also creating a humanitarian disaster. The PA needs $165 million just to pay 60 percent of its employees’ salaries. What little economic activity is left in the West Bank and Gaza today is mostly generated by government workers’ wages.
I recently visited a family that literally depends on the PA for its “money for bread.” The family lives in a refugee camp in Bethlehem among a crowded warren of cinderblock dwellings that generations have built one atop another. Five sons, some married with kids, and others not, all live in what amounts to a communal house. Whether food is sparse or plentiful, it is shared. Although each has his own apartment, their gathering place is a downstairs living room belonging to their parents, both of whom were forced to flee their villages as children when the Zionist armies seized control in 1948.
Laughing and joking, serious conversations and arguments – the stuff of family life – mostly take place in this room, filled with childhood photos and an homage to the late President Yasser Arafat. The father comes from a village he describes as “breezy, full of animals, near the sea, fresh.” Located north of the present-day Gaza Strip, Israel erased the community, which had been there for thousands of years, and renamed it. The mother’s family comes from a village closer by and more mountainous.
They are well-educated, accustomed to their plight as refugees, sometimes stern when talking about what has happened, other times misty-eyed.
LIVING PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK
One of the five brothers ate lentils for his daily meal. No one is eating much of anything else. He is 35 years old, with two daughters under 10, and a 2-year-old son. Playing and laughing, the children’s eyes still shine like those of children in less troubled places. His wife helps the kids with their homework, prays and attends the local university. All five brothers and their father are longtime PA employees. None have received salaries in more than two months due to Israel’s refusal to hand over the taxes it collects for the PA as well as the boycott, which includes most of the European Union. I asked him about the effect of the U.S.-led economic boycott. The boycott “is very dangerous,” he says, “because the only sector where the people are receiving some salaries now is the government, the Palestinian Authority. The private sector now is already dead a long time, because of the Israeli procedures against the economy and the people here.” “So it’s like we are dying. We’ve got nothing to eat… The stores – everything here – only moves after the employees get their salaries.”
Israel had just announced that it would cut off the northern West Bank from the southern half, without providing details to the Palestinians. This will strangle the economy even more, forcing whole communities to depend on government salaries.
As the early afternoon wore on, the longtime Fateh member pointed out the hypocrisy of the Bush administration promoting Palestinian elections, but then not wanting to accept the result of a Hamas victory. The U.S. government is also barring American companies from conducting business with the PA, and has announced that U.S. citizens are not allowed contact with either the government or with Palestinian NGOs – under threat of jail and even losing their citizenship. “You can’t just say, ‘Hamas took the government and we are not going to pay.’ You don’t punish the democracy, you know – punishing the Palestinian people, not just Hamas… And then for them to cut all help and financial aid to the Palestinians. We didn’t need the help before, but the Israelis have made sure we do.”
Family members say one of the cruelest aspects of the economic blockade is that it makes the Palestinians appear helpless. Until a few years ago, Beit Lahia and Beit Hanoun, the northern areas of Gaza, produced enough to feed the entire Strip and the southeastern West Bank. But now these sectors are an “isolation zone,” where Israeli forces recently killed a Palestinian child and a 55-year-old farmer. Today they look barren, as if no one ever lived there, just as half of Rafah does in the South.
Finding reason to hope is difficult. “First of all, the Israelis took everything. They fight the Palestinian people and kick them off their land. Now we feel embarrassed, like we are begging from the world. This is what you put us in – the West and Israel… This is your problem from the beginning. So you’ll have to find some kind of solution for this.”
ISRAEL TIGHTENS ITS GRIP
The economic blockade is not the only way that the Palestinians have been punished for electing a Hamas-dominated assembly on Jan. 25: Arrests and invasions by the Israeli forces are on the rise, construction of the unilateral border wall in the West Bank is “to be sped up,” and settlement construction and expansion have received “the green light,” according to a series of statements from the Israeli officials.
Israel has no intention of relaxing its grip. “We will continue surveillance of any funds coming into Palestinian hands,” says a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, “and if any reach the Hamas government we will exert all of our efforts to prevent their arrival.”
Qatar intends to send its US$50 million contribution via the Arab League in order to bypass the Israelis. Iran has promised $100 million, as has Russia, while Saudi Arabia has indicated $98 million. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Az Zahar in the Hamas-led government faced a tough task, however, as he toured the Middle East in search of a quick infusion of funds. Adding to the difficulties, both France and Morrocco have revoked visas for Hamas members of the government. Reality asserts itself when the man’s 20- something brother, a PA security employee, walks into the room. Overhearing our conversation, he informs us, “There’s no money coming until at least August.”
Due to the nature of his job, he can’t say how he knows. If it’s true, another prop has been knocked out from under this and many other families in embattled Palestine. And Israel may complete, sooner than even its harshest critics suspected, the slow ethnic cleansing it has been undertaking for nearly 50 years. The full text of this interview is available on Palestine News Network, at pnn.ps/english.