The tale of two (Palestinian) cities

Ironically, as much as Palestinians and Israelis desire a divorce, they are destined to live together.

Palestinian farmer picks tomatoes to be exported into Israel, on a farm in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian farmer picks tomatoes to be exported into Israel, on a farm in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Gaza is on the precipice of war, again. The Kushner/Greenblatt Peace Plan has gone nowhere.
Oslo is dead. The Trump administration is not perceived as a neutral arbitrator, leaving no viable dealmaker who can close the impossible deal. The peace process cottage industry is out of ideas. There is an emerging Gulf state-Israeli axis. But the road from Jerusalem to Riyadh still runs through Ramallah. Geo-strategists in the Arab world simply cannot ignore the Palestinians.
Ironically, as much as Palestinians and Israelis desire a divorce, they are destined to live together. The parties need good luck and new therapists or better, a change of theory and solid data analytics.
How did we get here? In late 2005, the Israelis evacuated all of its settlements from Gaza along with four outposts near Jenin in the northern West Bank. In early 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian Parliamentary elections. At that time, the American and Israeli governments made diametrically opposed policy decisions regarding Gaza and Jenin that more than a decade later would produce stunning and polar opposite results. In Gaza, the US and Israel exerted maximum economic pressure to drive political change to force Hamas to moderate or fail. In the northern West Bank, along the Jenin-Jalameh corridor close to northern Israel, the US and Israel promoted trade and economic opportunity to stabilize the region and marginalize Palestinian rejectionists and militias. I know the policy debates because I was there leading the massive US assistance efforts in the region for nearly a decade.
So what did we learn? Twelve years of economic pressure and isolation has only made Gaza a greater security risk. Hamas has already fired 650 rockets into Israel this year alone, nearly 20 times more than all of last year.
The three earlier wars left 4,000 dead and many more wounded with no end to conflict. The economy has collapsed. Unemployment in Gaza, at 44%, is the highest in the world with 60% of the Gazan young men unemployed and with no prospects of a job. Food insecurity for the entire population hovers around 50%. GDP per capita continues to decline. Natural moderates in the Gazan business community, professional class, and civil society have been completely defeated.
On the Israeli side of Gaza, life is tough as well. Ask the residents of Sderot, “the bomb shelter capital of the world,” where thousands of rockets and mortar fire have landed in this small village for more than a decade. Some 75% of Sderot children suffer from PTSD.
Closer to home, in 2014, my family and I – as American diplomats – ran to the bomb shelter more times that August than I did in 17 months serving in Baghdad. After 12 years, the evidence is clear – economic pressure on Hamas has yielded only catastrophic despair to Gazans and Israelis alike.
Jenin tells a different story.
During the Second Intifada, Jenin was the most dangerous city in the West Bank and arguably more dangerous than Gaza City. Sometimes called “the Martyrs’ Capital”, Jenin was home to at least 28 suicide bombers who killed 124 Israelis.
In April 2002, as part of the largest military operation since the 1967 War, the Israeli Defense Forces entered Jenin in a bloody 10 day battle. Despite the Israeli offensive, militant activities in the refugee camps were so intense that suicide bombings continued well into the mid 2000s. We would learn that trade and economic activity could do what the Israeli military could not – bring a sustained period of calm and well-being for people on either side of the Green Line.
Soon after disengagement from the West Bank, the American and Israeli governments negotiated with the Palestinian private sector to open up markets, facilitate trade and promote commerce while maintaining adequate, efficient security. First, we encouraged Palestinian traders to ship goods to high-end Israeli markets and onto the world through Haifa port. Later the Americans and Israelis negotiated access for Israeli Arabs – now up to 9,000 visitors a day – to drive to Jenin to go to restaurants, repairs their cars, or buy furniture. The mayor of Gilboa in Israel and the Palestinian Governor of Jenin joined together to champion trade and cooperation. Unemployment in Jenin – at Gaza levels as late as 2007 – fell by close to 60%, the business community prospered, the streets of Jenin became safe, and the Palestinian Authority began to delivered improved health care and education.
During the 2014 wave of lone-wolf attackers, almost none were from Jenin. Today, upscale New York and Washington shoppers can buy Jenin-based, Canaan Olive Oil at Whole Foods. The American’s provided $10 million in assistance for the Jenin trading corridor that leveraged an estimated $500 million of sustained, private sector trade which fundamentally changed the economic, security, and social fabric of the northern West Bank.
Want to see a different Gaza? The Kushner/Greenblatt plan which continues to economically squeeze Gaza will fail – as it has for the past 12 years.
Massive continued humanitarian aid alleviates suffering buts creates a welfare dependent, failed society. Another war in Gaza will not succeed – once the fourth war finishes, prepare for the fifth. To reboot Gaza, look to Jenin in the West Bank where economic opportunity has changed almost everything.
The author is the managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and was one of the longest serving American diplomats in Israel, leading the assistance mission to the West Bank and Gaza for more than a decade.