Another conflict zone: Poverty fuels anger in Palestine
RAMALLAH, Palestine — At noon on a hot day in late August, a noisy group of young Arab men in their late 20s is hanging around beside a ramshackle bus station in Bethlehem, a town just south of Jerusalem, believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Christ.
The young men sit and chat beneath the blazing sun, looking at the stream of yellow cabs that rush back and forth in the garbage-strewn street.
When they notice foreigners arriving from Jerusalem, they start whooping and shouting loudly in broken English: “Welcome to free Palestine! No Israel! No Israel!”
These young Palestinians are far from being alone in their angry defiance.
In this ancient Biblical town, currently governed by the semi-independent Palestinian Authority,
resentment for the neighboring Jewish state is everywhere, heard in routine conversations, and seen in bellicose graffiti in the streets.
The military battles of the decadeslong Arab-Israeli conflict are now far in the past, but the roots of the dispute have never been resolved, and old wounds never healed.
Palestine today suffers from widespread poverty, massive unemployment, and very low standards of living — all of which breeds even more resentment and hostility towards the richer state of Israel.
But most importantly, the seeds of new wars are growing from the resentment of young Palestinians, angered and radicalized by the lack of opportunity in their lives.
Driven to despair, many of them eventually follow the banners of Islamist fundamentalist groups like Hamas, fighting Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Israelis in turn retaliate with more violence, and blood is spilled time after time in a land that three religions call “holy.”
The current conflict in the Holy Land could be a preview of the future of another conflict raging less than 2,000 kilometers to the north, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, part of which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
There, Kremlin propaganda has exploited the poverty and despair of the region, and the younger generation, growing up behind the front lines of a war unleashed by Russia, is being taught to hate Ukraine.
Asked to explain the causes of ArabIsraeli dispute, most people living in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories have the same short answer: “It’s really complicated.”
Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, this 70-kilometer-wide strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has seen so many brutal battles, terror attacks, and mass expulsions that the mutual hatred between the two sides makes the prospect reaching a winwin peace virtually an impossibility.
Tensions are felt most in the West Bank, the rocky highlands of Judea and Samaria, where Jewish and Arab settlements are intermixed nearly all the way east to the Jordan River.
Here, the Jewish winegrowers of Ariel brand their Palestinian neighbors violent zealots who prefer the language of the knife to civilized dialogue, while the Arabic car repairers and farmers of Nablus call the Jews illegal occupants who have brought grief and destitution to their homeland.
And painful memories keep passions inflamed.
In Israel, ordinary people still recall in fear the period of 2000– 2005, known as the Second Intifada (“uprising”). Back then, a wave of violence claimed some 4,500 lives — roughly three-quarters of them Palestinian.
Almost every Jewish family has a story of a relative or a friend who was killed or injured in a terror attack committed by an Arab suicide bomber at a bus stop, or near a school, in Tel Aviv, or in Jerusalem.
At the same time, many Palestinians still bear bitter grief over loved ones killed in retaliatory anti-terror raids by the Israeli army and police in embattled Palestinian towns.
Such bitterness will probably linger Ukraine’s Donbas as well in future, should it be liberated from Russian occupation and reintegrated into Ukraine.
Judging from the hatred between Jews and Arabs in the divided West Bank, it could take years, if not decades, for people on both sides of the present-day front line in Ukraine to overcome their mutual anger over the destruction and bloodshed caused by Russia’s war.
In eastern Ukraine, Russia mobilized popular support for its 2014 intervention by exploiting the economic and social problems of the region — and Islamist groups like Hamas use the same tactic in Palestine.
The Palestinian Authority, which de jure governs parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but de facto controls only the West Bank, was established in 1994 under the leadership of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It was supposed to be an embryo of the State of Palestine — but a quarter of a century later it has yet to develop into an independent nation, even though 137 of 193 United Nations member states, including Ukraine, have recognized its statehood.
According to CIA World Factbook, some 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, plus 2 million live in the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas.
The Palestinian Authority still remains one of the world’s biggest recipients of international aid. Since 1994, the U.S. government alone has given $5.2 billion in assistance to Palestine through its U. S. Agency for International Development program — about the same amount Ukraine has received in a similar timeframe.
The United Nations considers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a region captured by Israel from Jordan during the Six-Day War of 1967, to be illegal.
The contrast of the quality of life in the Jewish and Palestinian settlements in that area, however, is striking.
While Jewish towns like Ariel or Rehelim in the very heart of the West Bank resemble middle-class Californian suburbs, with perfect roads, green gardens and well-tended houses, many of the Palestinian settlements are decaying slums, their streets littered with garbage.
The economic indicators speak for themselves.
As of 2018, the monthly minimum wage in Israel (including the Israeliheld West Bank) was 5,300 shekels ($1,500), while the average employee in the Palestinian Territories earned approximately 1,500 shekels ($420) per month.
Moreover, the unemployment rate in Palestine (including the Gaza Strip) in July, according to the autonomy’s Central Bureau of Statistics, hit
Youth unemployment also remains consistently high, according to World Bank estimates. In 2017, only 41 percent of those aged between 15 and 29 were active in the labor market, reflecting high pessimism regarding employment prospects, the institution notes in its April 2018 outlook on Palestine.
And in 2011, about 21 percent of the Palestinian population lived on less than $5.50 a day, way below the poverty line, the World Bank said.
“It’s no wonder that Arab communities in the West Bank, even those governed by the Palestinian Authority, are so poorly maintained,” says Boaz Haetzni, an official working for the Shomron Regional Council, which governs 35 Israeli settlements in the region. “Much of their economic activities and employment remain in the shadows, so their tax revenues are very low. Naturally, the effectiveness of public utilities and services in their cities and towns is also poor.”
Some Palestinians, however, manage to get jobs at the numerous Israeli-owned small businesses in the West Bank — a situation familiar to the some 2 million Ukrainians who have fled the war zone in the Donbas in search of a better life in government-controlled Ukraine or abroad.
One of the lucky few is Sufian Abu Khadra, an Arab man in his early fifties living near Ramallah, the provisional capital city of Palestine, located just to the north of Jerusalem.
Every day he drives through police checkpoints across the Biblical highlands of Samaria to the Ariel district to work at an Israeli plastic factory, which employs some 100 Palestinians.
“Of course, for most of the people in my village, it’s a dream job,” Abu Khadra says as he wipes oil from his hands with a duster.
“My son also works here. And with our salaries, we are able to feed at least 10 more members of our big family — our children, women, and the elderly,” he says. “In Palestine, unless you have good connections in the authorities and business, finding a well-paid job is not easy.”
The bigger problem, according to Abu Khadra, is that many Israeli companies don’t trust Palestinians and prefer to not hire them, even though they offer cheap labor.
“However, I must admit that, as God willing, this mutual rage somewhat dies down in the course of time,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, I might have been branded as a traitor by my fellow townsmen, but today many of them ask me to put a word in for them so they can get a good job.”
When asked what he thinks about the governance of the area by the Palestinian Authority, Abu Khadra gives a soft smile and refuses to give his opinion.
The outburst of violence of the Second Intifada also prompted Israel to build a 708-kilometer separation barrier around the whole West Bank, which serves to alienate the Palestinians further.
This was supposed to be an all-out defensive line against the Palestinian terror inside Israel — but Palestinians themselves see it as a humiliating symbol of racial segregation and apartheid in the 21st century. Today, Palestinians can cross the barrier and enter Israel only through a checkpoint, for no more than one day, and only if they have a special permit.
The most fortified part of the Israeli barrier, an 8-meter-high concrete wall crowned with barbed wire, snakes over the Judaean Mountains, which separate Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
From the Palestinian side, the barrier is a riot of graffiti that lambasts the global community for tolerating this segregation, and demands freedom, peace, and prosperity for Palestine in a world without any barriers between peoples.
Tourists gather in crowds before the wall to view famous works by anonymous street artist Banksy — most notably, the iconic graffiti “The Man Throwing Flowers,” symbolizing the aspiration for a peaceful struggle for rights and liberties.
But while the wall is full of calls for peace like “Make hummus, not walls,” there is another, more menacing message that stands out: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The phrase implies that part of the present Israeli state will be “freed.”
The Israeli Defense Forces believe that the separation barrier has helped combat terrorism all across Israel.
In March 2001, for instance, at the peak of the Second Intifada, at least 143 civilians were killed as suicide bombers sent by Hamas slipped into Israeli towns and cities and blew themselves up in buses, cafes, shopping malls, or restaurants, according to the IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus.
“That changed when we did two things,” the Israeli army official told the Kyiv Post.
“We regained the initiative and maneuvered inside the Palestinian areas, and took control for a short period of time over the Palestinian cities from where the suicide bombers were leaving, reestablishing intelligence capacity in those places. We forced the terrorists to flee and to be on the defensive — to care for their own safety instead of having the luxury of planning attacks against Israeli civilians.”
The second crucial step was erecting the barrier, which later proved to be effective, Conricus said.
“Since then, Hamas has not been able to conduct any significant terror attacks, suicide bombings.
“Not because it doesn’t want to, but because we’re constantly attacking its infrastructure, and we apply pressure on everything that belongs to Hamas: funding, material, radicalization centers in mosques et cetera.”
Combating Hamas terrorism is an area in which the Israeli army enjoys broad support and cooperation from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Cornicus added.
But in the West Bank it is not only Palestinians who have to face humiliating restrictions of movement in their own homeland.
When driving through the hills of Samaria, one can often meet red traffic signs reading in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Entrance forbidden to Israeli citizens — it is dangerous to your life and is against Israeli law.”
The road ahead leads to the so-called “Area A,” which includes some 18 percent of the West Bank and is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. With rare exceptions, no Israeli civilian can enter many important and ancient cities populated by Arabs, such as Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, or Jericho — another painful compromise accepted by Israel for the sake of peace.
“Sometimes I feel really bad about what’s happening in our land,” says Yair Eliash, a young Israeli political science student, as he looks at the magnificent panorama of the ancient city of Nablus from a high hill.
For long centuries, Nablus was a Jewish town called Shechem, where the grave of the Biblical patriarch Joseph is said to be. But now, Nablus is under the Palestine Authority and a no-go zone for Eliash.
“I feel sorry for the Palestinians — their life is really hard,” he said.
“I have many friends among them. We all see that the peace is absolutely attainable when we speak to each other not as people belonging to different nations, but just as friends.”
Elderly men communicate as they browse used good at a junk market in the town of Bethlehem controlled by the Palestinian Authority on Sept. 3. (Illia Ponomarenko)
A taxi cab drives through a street alongside the Israelibuilt defensive barrier in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem on Sept. 3. (Illia Ponomarenko)