The Palestinians, happiness and the ‘occupation’

Egypt is close to the bottom of the list at 138, significantly lower than the Palestinians “under occupation.”

Roger Waters, draped with a Palestinian keffiyeh (photo credit: REUTERS)
Roger Waters, draped with a Palestinian keffiyeh
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Measuring happiness might sound frivolous. To the contrary, for a Columbia University think-tank and two respectable Canadian policy institutes, measuring happiness and ranking states according to a uniform happiness score is serious business.
Judging by the top 10 countries and the same number at the bottom of a list of 157 countries with scores, the findings seem plausible.
Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand and Canada – the 10 countries with the highest happiness scores – appear on the top of lists that rank countries by any other positive characteristic like GDP per capita, the Human Development Index (the aggregate of economic, educational and life expectancy data) and human freedom and democracy.
These are also the same countries that rank lowest according to characteristics universally judged to be adverse to human quality of live, such as crime rates, traffic accidents measured by death and injury and suicide rates. (The widespread belief that Scandinavian countries suffer from high suicide rates is a myth.)
Neither do the 10 states with the lowest happiness scores generate surprise. Haiti, Botswana, Yemen, Rwanda, Tanzania,
Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and South Sudan are known for their lack of democracy, corruption and very low levels of economic welfare. Most of them are especially prominent for their political instability, which – in the case of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and South Sudan – can be characterized as long term full-scale civil wars.
It is not surprising, then, that the 10 happiest countries are those that hundreds if not thousands risk their lives to get to, and the countries at the bottom of the list are those from where many flee in their search for a better life in the happiest states.
What is striking is the ranking for “the Palestinian territories” compared to other countries – 111th out of 157 states with a score of 4.7, three from the highest ranked Finland and just less than two from South Sudan at the bottom.
An academic study found that 60% of the United Nations General Assembly resolutions condemning the behavior of states either to their own or other populations were addressed to Israel – in a world where well over half of the population (nearly 4 billion) live in despotic states. This includes a country such as North Korea, in which a regime has been brutally terrorizing its 20 million citizens for over 70 years.
The expectation from this finding alone would be that the Palestinian territories – presumably under occupation, but in reality under two separate despotic regimes, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – would be at the bottom of the list along with Yemen, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
Even more surprising is that there is more happiness relative to the population in the “Palestinian Territories” than several Middle East states, some of them being the most vociferous in their condemnation of Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians. Thus, energy rich Iran ranks seven slots lower than the Palestinian Authority. Obviously, the only political occupation Iranians know is the occupation the ayatollahs exert over their own citizens.
Even less happiness prevails in Egypt, whose regime in United Nations’ fora frequently initiates condemnations of Israel’s occupation. Egypt is close to the bottom of the list at 138, significantly lower than the Palestinians “under occupation.”
IT IS THE comparison with Jordan that should generate the greatest surprise. If Israel’s occupation is so onerous, how come the happiness prevailing in Jordan is only slightly greater than the happiness of Palestinians living under “occupation?” Jordan, with a ranking of 102, is only eight slots higher than the Palestinian territories.
Recall that the ranking aggregates Palestinians living in West Bank – where higher income levels prevail – and in Gaza. Were the ranking to differentiate between the areas, Palestinians living in the West Bank could plausibly generate a score at least equal to that of Jordan, where there is no “Israeli occupation.”
The Palestinian ranking would be more impressive were all 193 member states of the United Nations to be surveyed. The index is overwhelmingly represented by the richer states, which are easier to survey than the poorest states, many of which do not appear on the list. A notable but unsurprising exception is North Korea, where any survey is obviously impossible to administer. (The North Korean regime would probably justify the country’s absence from the list on the grounds that its citizens are the happiest of people).
The real tragedy this index exposes is that of Tunisia, not the Palestinians.
 Tunisia is the only country in the so-called “Arab Spring” that met in any way the expectations of those that gave these uprisings this name. Since the ousting of the ancient regime in December 2010, Tunisia has successfully changed its constitution, held three free elections, witnessed how a party broadly affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nahada, joined a government coalition and then relinquished power according to the prevailing democratic rules of the game. It is the only country in the Arab world that Freedom House, a think-tank that ranks democratic and human rights, has designated as “free.”
Nevertheless, despite these achievements, Tunisia ranks lower in happiness than the Palestinians with a ranking of 125. The failure of democracy to yield economic dividends – economic stagnation and high unemployment rates prevail instead – obviously takes its toll on the citizenry, many of whom – mostly the youth, but hardly exclusively so – take to the streets in protest.
The Tunisian case is also an obvious lesson for the Palestinians and their “Peace Now” supporters. In politics, there are relatively few cases of simple solutions to complex problems.
Just as democracy for Tunisia did not automatically translate into prosperity or happiness, there is absolutely no guarantee that a full-fledged independent Palestinian state, even if it could come about despite deep internal rift, would be a panacea to the problems its people face.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

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