Putting Yourself in the Shoes of a 20 Year Old Palestinian

News Abroad

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.

The Palestinian Territories are a fairly miserable place. Let us try to look at the place from the eyes of a 20 year old Palestinian:

The median age in the territories is only 16. Hence, that is one of the many reasons why one sees lots of teenagers tossing rocks. About 65% of the population is under the age of 25. This is a young population, full of energy and anger, with lots of time on its hands, and locked in a tiny space. There are some 1 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. There are some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The population of the territories has been growing at a rate of about 3.5 percent per year for the last 6 years. The birth rates have been at or near the highest that are physically possible. Each Palestinian woman has been having about 5+ children on average. The Palestinians, in their poverty, unemployment and violence, are trying to outrace the Israelis in the numbers of people? But where will these people live? Where will they work? Where will they go to school? Where will they go if they are sick? What is a place with a collapsing economy to do with an increasing population?

On the positive side, the Palestinians are some of the most educated Arabs. They have a literacy rate of about 86% in the territories, and even higher outside. Their level of overall skills seems to be much higher in their populations in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and the West than in the Occupied Territories and the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria. There are about 8 million Palestinians total. 2 Million plus of those are in Jordan. About 450,000 are in the Gulf, the rest are spread throughout the Middle East and the world.

Many of them have been able to start new lives outside of the refugee camps and the Occupied Territories because of their education and skills. The development of education and skills is often the reaction of a diaspora population that fears being ejected from yet another area. Education and skills can travel with them, no matter where they end up. However, for the people trapped in the Occupied Territories, there are educated and facing dwindling employment prospects. That is an explosive combination, especially in such a youthful society.

The Palestinians in the territories have relied on remittance income from those other Palestinians, especially their relatives, in the Gulf and in the Western countries for sometimes as much as 25% of their total income. This used to be much higher before the Gulf War. Some $900 million used to pour in from the Gulf before 1990-1991. Gulf countries also sent aid in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the PLO in the pre-Gulf War days.

Then the Palestinian leadership decided to support Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War (a supremely self-destructive position). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere were thrown out of the Gulf. 140,000 were thrown out of Kuwait alone. This was a massive shock to their economy and to their society. Some think that the harsh economic results of the Gulf War drove the Palestinians to the"peace table" in 1993. There is some truth to that assertion, even if the then bankrupt Palestinian leadership would deny it.

Slowly some of them were allowed to return to the Gulf after 1992. It helped that some of the Gulf businesses and governments have relied significantly on skilled Palestinians since especially the oil boom periods of the 1970s and early 1980s. Palestinians have been searching for, and getting jobs, in the Gulf since 1948. Yasser Arafat gained his initial wealth as a construction contractor in the Gulf.

The Gulf has yet to return to the gravy train for the Palestinians that it once was. The Kuwaitis have been the least welcoming back of all of the Gulf states, which is understandable from their perspective. Some of the Gulf States have been much stingier with their aid to them since 1991. The Al-Aqsa Intifada opened up their pockets a bit more, but in real terms the aid seems to be less than before the Gulf War. The brutal reaction of the Israelis to the uprising seems to have opened up the Gulf purses even more.

Even the Kuwaitis are now showing their old sensitivities toward the plight of the Palestinians. Even with all of the peace rhetoric of the early and mid-1990s, most Arabs still distrust and dislike the Israelis. If it were a choice between the Palestinians, even the Palestinians who"turned on them" in 1990, even most Kuwaitis would chose to deal with them rather than the Israelis.

In a recent survey of the Arab countries it was found that well over 50% of the populations of many of the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt consider the plight of the Palestinians to be the most important issue that they face. They have given to the charities in Palestine. Yes, even some of them gave to some of the same ones that have been shut down recently due to their associations, and alleged associations, with certain militant groups.

These militant groups, like Hamas, are very dangerous and violent, but they have also built up a following in the region due to their social programs, their clinics and their education programs. They have filled in some of the gaps that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has failed to fill in. After the cutting off of funds and the freezing of assets these programs have been severely cut back. The PA has also closed the doors to many of their programs. This has produced, ironically, anger at the PA, and more support for Hamas and other such extremist groups.

One of the burning questions is whether the PA can replace what these groups have built up before these groups can regroup their non-violent wings and their social and welfare programs. Hamas, The Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Hezbollah want to do with Israel what some of the most radical Israelis want to do with the Palestinians - toss them out. Having these extremist groups take over on either side is hardly the solution to the problems. However, the harsher the situation gets the more popular the extremists may become - for both sides.

With the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada 100,000+ (out of 120,000) working in Israel lost their jobs and their rights to travel daily to Israel. (No Palestinian can stay in Israel proper over night. They must return to the Occupied Territories.) Possibly more lost their jobs inside the territories. Unemployment is about 30-40% in the Gaza Strip, and about 25-30% in the West Bank. In some areas the unemployment rate may be as high as 70%. The closures have carved out the West Bank and Gaza into dozens of small areas of closure.

In other words, during closures one does not get to work. Employers tend to replace those who do not show up. Also, as the 700,000 plus persons from the former USSR and Eastern Europe flowed into Israel after 1991, the competition for jobs got even fiercer. Israel has also been importing labor from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia to replace some of the Palestinians. Many in Argentina are considering moving to Israel. Israel has a fairly large pool of highly educated, highly skilled people worldwide to recruit.

The Palestinians are also facing a health crisis. There are only 1 doctor and 1 nurse per 1,000 persons on average in the territories. Most Palestinian doctors and nurses have left for"greener and safer pastures". There are no real high quality hospitals in the Western sense. There are also clearly not enough hospitals and clinics to handle their health issues. The violence of recent days has put huge stress on the health system. Over 800 Palestinians have died in the violence. Over 16,000 have been injured. Illnesses due to high stress have also risen. Those who have chronic health problems sometimes cannot get to their doctors or hospitals due to the closures. Pregnant women sometimes cannot go to the hospitals at the most important times. Diabetics and others cannot get their medicines sometimes.

The area is also mostly under water stress, especially since the Israelis have redirected through their national water program most of the water in the West Bank and Gaza to greater Israel inside of the"Green Line." There is also a problem of water pollution, especially in Gaza. Salinization due to over extraction of underground water and the encroachment of seawater has been in growing problem in the Gaza. Over 100 wells have been damaged during the uprising. It is very difficult for a Palestinian to obtain a permit to dig a new well.

Hundreds of houses have also been destroyed during the uprising. Building permits for Palestinians are very hard to come by-if not impossible in some areas. The telephone system is in disrepair. Gaza Airport is destroyed. Gaza Port is damaged and closed. Palestinian Radio and TV have been damaged severely.

The Palestinians are allowed to use only the worst roads. Transport infrastructure is segregated into Palestinian roads and Israeli roads. One can easily tell the differences by looking at the quality of the roads. Road repairs for the Palestinian roads have been almost non-existent during the uprising.

Thousands of olive trees, the"life blood" of the Palestinian farmer, and the major source of their farm income, have been bulldozed. Fields have been dug up. Lives have been shattered in a process of collective punishment for the deeds of a minority of the Palestinians. It will take years to get olive trees back to maturity from the new plantings, which may not occur for a very long time.

Palestinian trade is pretty much monopolized by the Israelis. This is a fact of geography, as well as politics and history. About 96% of Palestinian exports go out via Israel or to Israel. About 80% of Palestinian imports come from Israel. Before the 1993 accords these numbers were even higher. Since then small amounts of trade with the outside world have been allowed. Israel, however, still controls the borders, the sea and the air. In order to cross into Jordan, for example, a trader (or anyone else) still needs to go through a sliver of Israeli territory. This is also the case for travel to and from Egypt and Lebanon. Travel to Syria is nearly impossible. For obvious reasons, especially the cutting brutality of the closures, both imports and exports have dropped considerably since the Al-Aqsa Intifada started. There have been over 120 days of closures since September, 2000. There is also an economic depression settling in on the territories.

GDP in real terms has dropped by 30% since 1997. The territories may have lost as much as $1 billion in potential GDP due to the uprisings and their effects. Labor income may have dropped more than $600 million. For an area with a GDP of about $5 billion that is pretty harsh. Net real wages have sunk.

The bargaining power of workers has dropped to nothing. The bargaining power of local businesses has mostly evaporated when it comes to selling things and getting investments, parts and supplies - especially from the Israelis. About 20% of the labor force used to work in Israel. Now they are roaming the streets in unemployment and anger. Poverty may have increased to over 60% of the population. Considering that poverty is considered at $2 per day; that is very hard living. More and more children have had to leave school to help their families make ends meet. That can be a bit easier when the schools are damaged, the teachers are blocked at the gates of the village from coming in, and teachers of leaving the area for better lives (or even just to live, period) elsewhere.

Foreign investment is now non-existent outside of the few brave Arab and European investors. Who else would invest in such a place, excepting a real" cowboy"? After the 1993 Accords there was so much hope. Investment groups were set up. A stock exchange was built up. Free tax and free trade zones were established. Israelis and Palestinian businesses were thinking about investing together. Billions of aid was pouring in, mostly form the EU and the US. Arab investors from outside were considering doing deals with Israelis in Israel and in the territories. There was great talk about industrial zones. Joint tourism between the territories, Jordan, Israel and Egypt was to be a real hope for the future. Some expatriate Palestinians were seriously considering coming back and helping to build a new Palestine. That has all been shattered.

For the angry youth of Palestine, Arafat has failed them. Israel has failed them. The Peace Process has been a complete failure. The return to the average Palestinians from the Peace Accords of 1993 has been massively net negative.

Many are unemployed, unhappy, at physical risk, and losing hope. Those who have little or nothing to lose, or who have lost all hope, can do some terribly strange and violent things. They can turn to the militant groups, the violent fanatics, because otherwise they feel useless and emasculated.

Put yourself in the shoes of that 20 year old. Where are his hopes? Where is his vision of the future? Negotiations, to him, have failed. His hopes for a better future have been shattered recently. The peaceful route to a solution to this problem of over 100 years does not seem to him to have worked. As the peace fails and the economy fails, so does the chance for this young person to see any other way but violence - especially when violence is so prevalent. Their Palestinian Authority is a shell of itself and seemingly powerless to defend this young man, and his family. Hamas, Palestinian Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are increasing in popularity because the peaceful way has failed so far.

Where else can he turn to? That is the saddest part. What can turn a young man or woman into a suicide bomber--hopelessness, poverty, neglect, and crushing psychological stress--in a world that, to them, may have no way out but by the gun or the bomb. All other routes have been shut. Non-violent means like those of M.K. Ghandi have no precedent in the Palestinian community. One could hope and pray for such a person to bubble up from their community, but it seems highly unlikely.

Whatever the case, they need hope. They need some proof that there is a better future ahead, economically and otherwise. An angry an increasingly poor, unemployed and destitute people are hardly good partners in peace negotiations.

It will be to the benefit of Israel and the Palestinians that these crushing economic and security issues are resolved quickly. The window of opportunity is nearly closed.

All opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the US Government. Sources of some of the data here include the Economist Intelligence Units country reports and country profiles on the West bank and Gaza and various World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and ESCWA publications. Sources and their internet pages can be supplies upon request.

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More Comments:

Comment - 2/21/2002

Name: Alexander A. Di Lella
Company: Catholic University
Email: dilella@cua.edu

Subject: Biblical Studies
Message: Please send "Putting Yourself in the Shoes of a 20 Year Old Palestinian" to as many of the media as possible. Thanks.

Comment - 2/21/2002

Your article on the young Palestinians is very informative. However, it could easily be conscrued as a justification for terrorism against Israel. Mr. Sullivan, should be more concerned and explain how the Palestinians arrived to this situation and how much foreign assistance was refused to remain in a situation that may well justify their terrorism and continued anit-Israeli propaganda.

mari conea

Rehan Farooq - 2/21/2002

Amazing and true article. Let us hope people on both sides come to their senses...