Palestine problem hopeless, but not serious
"The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," declared United
Sates President Barack Obama in his June 4 Cairo address. Really? Compared to
what? Things are tough all over. The Palestinians are one of many groups
displaced by the population exchanges that followed World War II, and the only
ones whose great-grandchildren still have the legal status of refugees. Why are
they still there? The simplest explanation is that they like it there, because
they are much better off than people of similar capacities in other Arab
The standard tables of gross domestic product (GDP) per capital show the West
Bank and Gaza at US$1,700, just below Egypt's $1,900 and significantly below
Syria's $2,250 and Jordan's $3,000. GDP does not include foreign aid, however,
roughly 30% to spendable funds in the Palestinian territories. Most important,
the denominator of the GDP per capita equation - the number of people - is far
lower than official data indicate. According to an authoritative study by the
Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies , the West Bank and Gaza population
in 2004 was only 2.5 million, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by the
Palestinian authorities. The numbers are inflated to increase foreign aid.
Adjusting for the Begin-Sadat Center population count and adding in foreign
aid, GDP per capita in the West Bank and Gaza comes to $3,380, much higher than
in Egypt and significantly higher than in Syria or Jordan. Why should any
Palestinian refugee resettle in a neighboring Arab country?
GDP per capita, moreover, does not reflect the spending power of ordinary
people. Forty-four percent of Egyptians, for example, live on less than $2 a
day, the United Nations estimates. The enormous state bureaucracy eats up a
huge portion of national income. New immigrants to Egypt who do not have access
to government jobs are likely to live far more poorly than per capita GDP would
Other data confirm that Palestinians enjoy a higher living standard than their
Arab neighbors. A fail-safe gauge is life expectancy. The West Bank and Gaza
show better numbers than most of the Muslim world:
Life Expectancy by Country in Years
West Bank and Gaza
Source: United Nations
Literacy in the Palestinian Authority domain is 92.4%, equal to that of
Singapore. That is far better than the 71.4% in Egypt, or 80.8% in Syria.
Without disputing Obama's claim that life for the Palestinians is intolerable,
it is fair to ask: where is life not intolerable in the Arab world? When the
first UN Arab Development Report appeared in 2002, it elicited comments such as
this one from the London Economist: "With barely an exception, its autocratic
rulers, whether presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they
die; its elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal
and economic beings, and more than half its young, burdened by joblessness and
stifled by conservative religious tradition, are said to want to get out of the
place as soon as they can." Life sounds intolerable for the Arabs generally;
their best poet, the Syrian "Adonis" - Ali Ahmad Said Asbar - calls them an
Palestinian Arabs are highly literate, richer and healthier than people in most
other Arab countries, thanks to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and
the blackmail payments of Western as well as Arab governments. As refugees,
they live longer and better than their counterparts in adjacent Arab countries.
It is not surprising that they do not want to be absorbed into other Arab
countries and cease to be refugees.
If the Palestinians ceased to be refugees, moreover, it is not clear how they
would maintain their relatively advantaged position. They cannot return to
farming; for all the tears about bulldozed olive groves, no one in the West
Bank will ever make a living selling olive oil, except perhaps by selling "Holy
Land" products to Christian tourists. Apart from tourism, the only non-subsidy
source of income the Palestinians had was day labor in Israel, but security
concerns close that off. Light manufacturing never will compete with Asia, and
surely not during a prolonged period of global overcapacity.
An alternative is for the Palestinians to continue to live off subsidies. But
why should they? Why should Western taxpayers subsidize an Arab in Ramallah,
when Arabs in Egypt are needier? The answer is that they represent a security
concern for Western countries, who believe that they are paying to limit
violence. That only makes sense if the threat of violence remains present in
the background and flares up frequently enough to be credible. One cannot
simply stage-manage such things. A sociology of violence in which a significant
proportion of the population remains armed.
To contain the potential violence of an armed population, donors to the
Palestinian authority hire a very large proportion of young men as policemen or
paramilitaries. According to a February 10, 2008, report by Steven Stotsky :
the Palestinian security forces will cost $4.2 to $7 billion over the next five
years. What's more, the recent aid package agreed on in Paris committing to
$7.4 billion for the Palestinians doesn't contain any provision for the
The Reuters report follows a piece in the Jordan Times announcing plans to
train a 50,000-person police force for the West Bank. This translates to one
police officer for every 42-70 citizens (depending on which population figures
for the West Bank are accepted), an unprecedented concentration of police
presence. Currently, there are only 7,000 Palestinian police officers in the
West Bank (Reuters, January13, 2008), so the new plan calls for a seven-fold
increase. The planned expansion would result in a density of police at least
three to four times that of major American cities that have to contend with
much higher crime rates than the West Bank.
Add to this bloated
police force the numerous other state security organizations as well as private
militias, and it is clear that security is the biggest business in the
Palestinian territories and the largest employer of young men. The number of
armed Palestinian fighters is estimated at around 80,000 or more than six times
the soldiers per capita in the United States. About one out of four Palestinian
men between the ages of 20 and 40 makes a living carrying a gun.
That is, the economic structure of "pre-state" Palestine is heavily skewed
towards the sort of institutionalized means of violence that is supposed to
disappear once a state has been established. This is absurd, and creates a
double disincentive for the Palestinians to maintain a low boil of violence.
Just how this violence-centered society is supposed to make the transition to
an ordinary civil society is an unanswerable question.
Once the problem is diagnosed with this kind of clarity, the solution becomes
Cut Western support to the Palestinians with the aim of reducing living
standards in the West Bank to those prevailing in Egypt, as an incentive for
Demilitarize Palestinian society: offer a reward for turning in weapons, seize
them when necessary, and give newly-unemployed gunmen employment weaving
baskets at half pay.
Like many obvious solutions, this one never will be put into practice. The
problem all along has been the wrong set of expectations. Once Palestinian
Arabs adjust their expectations to correspond to levels of income, education
and health prevailing in other Arab countries in the region, they can either
form a state similar to other Arab states in the region, or simply emigrate to
those states as individuals.
The Palestinians cannot form a normal state. They cannot emigrate to Arab
countries without accepting a catastrophic decline in living standards, and
very few can emigrate to Western countries. The optimal solution for the
Palestinians is to demand a state and blackmail Western and Arab donors with
the threat of violence, but never actually get one.
That is why the Palestinian issue is "hopeless, but not serious", in the words
of my old mentor Norman A Bailey, a former national security official. As long
as all concerned understand that the comedy is not supposed to have an ending,
the Palestinians can persist quite tolerably in their "intolerable"