Whatever one thinks of President Trump’s so-called Middle East “Deal of the Century” unveiled last month, it is clearly not a workable plan for peace in the short-term. Rather than a top-down solution crafted in Washington DC (a strategy that has failed for three decades), the world should focus on “quick wins” to reinvigorate the Palestinian economy from the bottom up, and increase startup programmes, business ties and social integration between Israelis and Palestinians.
There is a track record of mistaking economic struggles in the Middle East for political ideology. The Arab Spring’s original slogan in Egypt, for instance, was “bread, freedom, and social justice.” The “bread” came first on the streets of Cairo, and it is no different in the slums of Gaza. In the hierarchy of human needs, providing for one’s family is higher than political self-determination. What is presented internationally as the struggle against Israeli occupation is often simply a reaction against the daily economic hardship associated with it.
Roughly a third of Palestinians are unemployed with a majority of Gazans unable to find work. The actual figures are likely to be higher due to under-reporting, combined with casual, precarious work often being the only employment available. Even those fortunate enough to be in employment have suffered recently. In 2018, Gaza’s local economy contracted by 7%, resulting in a 10% decline in per capita income.
Palestinians, it seems, are also just as angry (if not more so) about their economic exclusion at the hands of their own representatives as they are about their territorial dispute with Israelis. Last year’s lethal Gaza border protests, marketed by the organisers as “the Great March of Return,” gained attention and headlines around the world. Less newsworthy but perhaps more informative were the 2019 mass demonstrations in the territory against rising prices and taxes in the face of poverty; with protestors burning tyres, shouting anti-Hamas slogans and throwing stones at Hamas security forces (the group’s violent response was ironically similar to the behaviour they condemn from Israeli forces).
Pro-Palestinian activists might wonder how I can dare to focus on issues such as incomes and livelihoods when the “real issue” is justice for the Palestinian people. But an economic life, including one that brings them closer to their neighbours, is a precursor to any political settlement.
Whatever one’s views on the emotive issues in Trump’s plan, such as the right to return and the capital of the proposed Palestinian state, the day-to-day reality for ordinary Palestinians must still be addressed. It’s easy to dream of a Palestinian state. It is much harder to work to create living conditions that would make that state worth living in.
Those activists who are so fond of comparing the situation in the Middle East with apartheid South Africa should heed their own advice and learn from South Africa’s mistakes: whilst political apartheid has ended, economic apartheid is almost as entrenched today as it was 26 years ago. Territorial gains are almost worthless without material ones. Just ask the 93% of the poorest South Africans who happen to be black.
But the real benefit of focusing on economic development for Palestinians isn’t just in providing hope to a disenfranchised society, giving their youth something to live for, and providing a counter-narrative to the extremists who are happy for them to have no alternative to stone throwing.
If Palestinian entrepreneurship (which is recognised and admired across the region) can be harnessed, the social divisions between Arabs and Israelis will start to dissolve. As long as the two communities cannot live and work together side by side, the conflict will remain intractable, which is why Palestinians should be given greater access to Israel’s successful tech industry and start up scene.
While providing the innovation that the wider Middle East can benefit from, the Israeli tech sector is suffering from 15,000 unfulfilled jobs, limiting its growth. More than 50% of Palestinians are under 30, and they can provide the motivated labour force that Israeli startups need.
Many Middle Eastern entrepreneurs want to see a pan-Middle Eastern Silicon Valley - a vision they shared at last week’s Milken Institute MENA summit in Abu Dhabi, which I attended. If we are to capitalise on those opportunities, we will have to see beyond caricatures of the region as war-torn and destitute.
And in the process, we may achieve what 30 years of peace plans, roadmaps and deals have failed to deliver.
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