‘The US is only helping to entrench the occupation’: Palestinians urge Biden to do more

Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and the West Bank this week, his first since taking office, Palestinians are urging the US leader to do more to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than offer them more inducements economic.

For a year and a half, the Biden administration has declared that Palestinians are entitled to the same measure of “freedom, security and prosperity” enjoyed by Israelis. But Palestinians say they have mostly secured US aid and permits to work inside Israel and its Jewish settlements.

“Economic measures have the potential to contribute positively to making peace, but that would require Israel and the United States to have a plan to end this 55-year-old military occupation,” said Sam Bahour, a consultant in Palestinian-American businessman based in the Bank of the West.

“They don’t,” Bahour said, “so all the so-called economic ‘confidence measures’ are just occupation entrenchment measures.”

Israeli officials are likely to point to the thousands of work permits issued to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing those who hold them to earn far higher wages and inject much-needed cash into an economy partly hampered by Israeli restrictions . Biden will likely tout the tens of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid he restored after they were cut during the Trump years.

Proponents say such economic measures improve the lives of Palestinians and help preserve the possibility of an eventual political solution.

Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza to the Israeli side of the Erez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, March 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

But when Biden crosses Israel’s security fence to meet Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, he will hear a different story – of how they see Israel cementing its decades-long military rule on them, with no end in sight.

Israel’s short-lived coalition government issued 14,000 permits to Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under a crippling blockade since the Islamic terror group Hamas took power 15 years ago. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from arming itself for major attacks against the Israeli civilian population.

Israel has also increased the number of permits issued in the West Bank, where more than 100,000 Palestinians work inside Israel and settlements, mostly in construction, manufacturing and agriculture. He even began to allow a small number of Palestinian professionals to take better paid jobs in Israel’s booming high-tech sector.

The government presented these and other economic measures as goodwill gestures, even as it approved the construction of thousands more homes for settlers in the West Bank.

The Biden administration adopted a similar strategy, providing financial aid to the Palestinians but doing little else to end the conflict. His plan to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians has also come up against a wall of Israeli opposition.

Ines Abdel Razek, director of advocacy at the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy, says the United States and the European Union are “throwing money at the Palestinians” instead of admitting their complicity.

“All Biden is trying to do is maintain a certain calm and tranquility, which for Palestinians means entrenched colonization and repression,” she said.

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Har Homa neighborhood of Jerusalem, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Michael Milshtein, an Israeli analyst who used to advise the military body responsible for civil affairs in the territories, argues that the theory of “economic peace” – or the promotion of economic development in the absence of peace negotiations – dates back decades.

He says it is making a resurgence due to the prolonged absence of any peace process and the political crisis within Israel, but at best it will only bring temporary calm.

“That’s the way to preserve stability,” he said. “That’s no way to solve deep political problems.”

For individual Palestinians, the permits are a boon. Their average salary in Israel is around $75 a day, double the rate in the West Bank, according to the World Bank. In Gaza, where unemployment hovers around 50%, tens of thousands of people lined up for permits last fall.

But critics say the permits, which Israel can revoke at any time, are yet another control tool that undermines the development of an independent Palestinian economy.

“Every permit issued by Israel to Palestinian workers serves the economic development of Israel and drains the Palestinian labor force, so that we in the private sector will remain unable to create a different economic reality,” Bahour said.

Even as it issues work permits, Israel is tightening its grip on what is known as Area C – the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control according to interim peace accords signed in the 1990s. Palestinians have limited autonomy in an archipelago of towns and villages.

Area C includes most of the open space and natural resources of the West Bank. The World Bank estimates that lifting heavy restrictions on Palestinian access to the region would boost their economy by a third. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.

It’s not on the table.

A Palestinian boy against the backdrop of his home village of Susiya in Area C of the West Bank on July 24, 2015. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

The Israeli political system is dominated by right-wing parties that view the West Bank as an integral part of Israel. Even if caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who supports a two-state solution, manages to form a government after the November 1 election – which recent polls show is unlikely – his coalition will almost certainly rely on some extremist parties.

It is often claimed that even if economic measures do not lead to a political solution, they still promote stability – but history has not necessarily confirmed this.

In the 1980s, nearly half of Gaza’s workforce was employed in Israel, and workers could come and go easily. Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, burst onto the scene in 1987 with the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising against Israeli rule. The second Palestinian uprising, in 2000, also erupted during a period of relative prosperity.

The Gaza permits, the first issued since the Hamas takeover, appear to be a strong incentive for the terror group to maintain its calm, as any rocket fire could cost thousands of well-paying jobs. Again, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has always cost the Palestinians dearly.

In the West Bank, where many more Palestinians have the coveted permits, a recent wave of violence has seen deadly terror attacks by Palestinians inside Israel and near-daily arrest raids by the IDF.

A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Polling Research found that 65% of Palestinians support so-called confidence-building measures, including permit issuance. The survey interviewed 1,270 Palestinians from across the West Bank and Gaza, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

But the same poll also revealed striking measures of desperation: Support for a two-state solution fell from 40% to 28% in just three months, and 55% of those polled support “a return to confrontation and armed intifada”.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Michael A. Bynum