How did the Palestinians reach their current tragic state? Are the Israelis responsible? What part of the blame falls on the other Arab states and the Palestinians’ own leaders?
These are important questions. The answers are complex, requiring a historical literacy and a willingness to go beyond the simplistic notion of the international media that the Mid-east conflict is a matter of conflicting rights and Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian lands.
Within a few days of the June 10 cease-fire following Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967, Abba Eban, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, made his famous speech offering to negotiate the return of captured territories in exchange for three Arab concessions: diplomatic recognition of Israel; negotiations to decide on universally recognized borders and other issues; and peace as a final outcome. Western countries expressed amazement that the victor was offering to negotiate with the vanquished and was willing to make concrete concessions (return of territories) in exchange for symbolic and diplomatic ones.
To formulate a response to this unexpected new reality, the Arab states called a summit meeting in Khartoum (capital of Sudan). The result was the now infamous three Khartoum NOs: no recognition, no negotiations, no peace. Thus Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was caused first by Arab aggression and then by Arab refusal to negotiate a peace after the Arab armies had been vanquished.
After the war, Israel began what is sometimes called its “mini-Marshall plan” for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, investing hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them both into the 20th century with regard to infrastructure, roads, sewerage, electricity, phones, radio and TV broadcasting, water purification and water supply. World Bank records indicate that the GDP of the West Bank grew at the average rate of 13% per year between 1967 and 1994. Tourism skyrocketed, unemployment almost disappeared as hundreds of thousands of Arabs worked in Israel’s economy earning far more than their counterparts in other Arab countries. Seven universities grew up on the West Bank in place of the three teachers training schools that existed before 1967.
And, perhaps most telling of all, free and unencumbered access to Israel’s medical infrastructure resulted in a declining infant mortality and a rise in longevity. The infant mortality rate was reduced from 60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000. Under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseasessuch as polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated. Over the next two decades, the number of schoolchildren in the territories grew by 102%. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14% of adults over age 15 (compared with 61% in Egypt, 45% in Tunisia, and 44% in Syria). Arab population tripled from around 950,000 in 1967 to more than 3 million in 1994.
All this time, the Arab nations remained formally at war with Israel. In 1979, Egypt alone among the Arab states agreed to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In response to Egypt’s willingness to sign the peace, Israel withdrew its forces and settlements in the Sinai.
When the 1993 Oslo Accords allowed Yasser Arafat to set up shop in the West Bank as the head of the newly created Palestinian Authority, the existing robust economy created in partnership between Israel and the Arabs ground to a halt and then went into a steep decline. By 2002, the West Bank’s GDP was one-tenth of what it had been in 1993.
Data provided by the UN Human Development program of 2005 indicate that the economic difficulties experienced by the Palestinian Arabs were largely the result of policies of the Arafat regime and not from any oppression by the State of Israel. Looking at what it calls “The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT),” the UN report notes, for instance, that the second Intifada beginning in September 2000 resulted “in a sharp deterioration in living standards and life chances.” The poverty rate nearly tripled from 20% in 1999 to 55% in 2003. In one telling example, the report notes that because of the Intifada, the town of Nablus -- a prosperous commercial hub prior to September 2000 -- became an economic basket case. Shops were closed; to survive, workers had to sell their tools, and farmers were forced to sell their land. It was Arafat’s war, not Israeli rule, that destroyed Palestinian prosperity and bled its people.
Israel is the scapegoat for the plight of the Palestinians, but from the 19th century onward, Arab leaders, both local and external, have betrayed the Palestinian Arabs, forced them into poverty, cheated, intimidated, and oppressed them, condemned them to serfdom and stolen the land out from under them. Every opportunity for statehood was squandered by leaders who chose war and terrorism over peace and cooperation and thus condemned their people to poverty.
Adapted from "Who Is Really Oppressing the Palestinians?," by David Meir-Levi (February 3, 2006).