Economic Figures Tell Us the True Purpose of Israel's Impoverishment of the West Bank and Gaza

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Economic Figures Tell Us the True Purpose of Israel's Impoverishment of the West Bank and Gaza

Last May my wife, Diane, and I were driven around Jerusalem and Ramallah by a Palestinian economist (I'll call him Saeed). As we were passing through Belt Hanina headed for the Ramallah line, Saeed pointed to the pale gray, stony hilltops stretching away on each side of the road. "There are paths all through these places," Saeed said. "You want to get into Israel from the West Bank, you can. I could avoid inspection even with a car."

We'd been talking about Palestinian laborers working in Israel and Saeed's point was that though concrete barriers and checks by the Israeli border police on the main roads can slow traffic down and catch the odd illegal, the way into Israel for a West Banker willing to do some walking really isn't that hard.

Estimates vary, but it's likely that some 10,000 to 20,000 undocumented Palestinians work in Israel every day, either walking in in the morning through the country's porous borders and leaving at night or finding some place to stay in Israel for longer periods.

Urban Ramallah, when we got there, and later Bethlehem, where I went alone, seemed relatively well off; not prosperous, but, unlike refugee camps, having a tolerable economic existence. This impression underscores a truth that has emerged recently about the West Bank and Gaza (WBG): there is increasing inequality in income, not just between the two areas, but within the West Bank itself.

We know this thanks to the work of the Palestinian National Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics. The PCBS has been collecting economic data on WBG since 1995 and we now have, among other things, detailed data on consumption patterns them.

PCBS data as analyzed by the World Bank reveal the geographical inequities. The so-called "middle West Bank" -- that is, the area stretching around Jerusalem from Ramallah down to Bethlehem -- is far better off than other parts of WBG. Household consumption here is one-third higher than the Palestinian average. Communities in the northern West Bank -- Tulkarm, Jenin -- consume 10 percent below the average; Gaza as a whole consumes 15 percent below average. (Households contain more persons in Gaza, as well, 7.9 members compared to the West Bank average of 6.7; this means that per capita consumption in Gaza is even lower than the per household figures show.)

INEQUALITY GROWING

PCBS figures also show that inequality is growing. From 1995 to 1997, overall growth in consumption in WBG was 1 percent, but most of this occurred in the areas around Jerusalem (6 percent). The south increased its consumption 2 percent; in the north consumption fell by 4 percent; in Gaza consumption was stagnant.

It's not surprising that the denser Palestinian population areas around Jerusalem are relatively prosperous since Jerusalem is the urban center closest to them and it's to urban areas that Palestinian workers -- legal or illegal -- head to find employment. (Illegal trade probably plays a role, too.) It's also not surprising that Gaza, which is sealed off from Israel by electronic fences and other controls not found in the West Bank, should have the greatest unemployment and lowest income. You can't just stroll into Israel from Gaza.

As a result of Israeli policy, Palestinians are increasingly impoverished. The World Bank estimates that in 1995 20 percent of the 2.7 million Palestinians were living in poverty, with 35 percent of those living in camps in that category. By the end of 1997, those figures had climbed to 30 percent and 40 percent respectively.

Even with Palestinian illegals skirting Israeli checks on a daily basis, the Bank reports that Israeli closures reduced Palestinian employment in Israel from 116,000 persons a day in 1992 (more than a third of the Palestinian work force) to 22,000 in 1996 and 35,000 in 1997. …

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