By Efraim Karsh, Professor and Head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s
College, University of London, and author most recently of Arafat’s War
September, 16, 2005.
No sooner had Israel completed its withdrawal of 8,000 Jewish
citizens from the Gaza Strip than official Palestinian spokesmen proclaimed
that this move would not end the occupation – since Israel would continue to
control the region’s coast and air space.
In fact, Israel’s occupation of the Strip ended not in August,
2005, but 11 years earlier. The declaration of principles signed on the
White House lawn in 1993 by the PLO and the Israeli government provided for
Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
On July 1,  PLO chairman Yasser Arafat made his triumphant
entry into Gaza, and shortly afterward both the Israeli civil administration and
military government were dissolved.
From then on, Gaza’s Palestinian population no longer lived under
Israeli occupation, but rather under the jurisdiction of the Arafat-led
Palestinian Authority (PA).
As the virulently anti-Israel tone of
Palestinian media and school curricula shows, not to mention the territory’s
extensive terrorist network, the Israeli presence during this period was
But Palestinians and their supporters were not about to give up the
‘occupation’ charge. Since the Israeli conquest of Gaza and the West Bank
during the 1967 Six Day war, the term has become the Palestinian trump
propaganda card, allowing them not only to demonize Israel and justify
terrorism, but also to extract substantial international aid. This week, as
the Israeli army evacuated its last troops from Gaza, billions more dollars
were set to flow in.
The Palestinians argue that such funds are necessary to repair the
damage caused by Israelis. Upon his arrival in Gaza in 1994, Arafat lost no
time in painting conditions there in the blackest possible shades.
“You can’t imagine the poor shape in which we received Gaza,” he
complained. “The infrastructure was totally ruined. The Israelis took everything
before their departure: doors, windows, light bulbs, and taps. There is no ill
from which Gaza does not suffer.”
This claim was divorced from reality. During their 19-year
occupation of the Gaza Strip (1948-67), the Egyptians ruled the area with an
iron fist, keeping the local population in squalid, harshly supervised
camps, where they could serve as a rallying point for anti-Israel sentiment.
Life expectancy was low, malnutrition, infectious diseases, and child
mortality were rife, and the level of education was low. Palestinians were
denied Egyptian citizenship and were subjected to severe restrictions on
travel and work, with unemployment among refugees running above 80%.
“The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are,” Egyptian president
Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to a Western reporter in 1956. “We
will always see that they do not become too powerful. Can you imagine yet
another nation on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean?”
The passing of Gaza (and the West Bank) into the hands of Israel
led to dramatic improvements in the Palestinians’ quality of life, placing
the population of the territories well ahead of most of their Arab
During the 1970’s, in fact, the West Bank and Gaza constituted
the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world – ahead of Singapore, Hong
Kong, Korea, and substantially ahead of Israel itself. Although GNP per
capita grew somewhat more slowly thanks to the rapidly expanding Palestinian
population, the rate was still high by international standards, with
per-capita GNP expanding tenfold between 1968 and 1991 from US$165 to
US$1,715 (compared with Jordan’s US$1,050, Egypt’s US$600, Turkey’s
US$1,630, and Tunisia’s US$1,440).
Under Israeli rule, the Palestinians also made vast progress in
social welfare. Life expectancy rose from 48 in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (compared
with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and
North Africa). Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of
60 per 1,000 live births in 1968 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000. (In Saddam’s
Iraq, by comparison, the rate was 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23.).
And under a systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases such as
polio, whooping cough, tetanus and measles were eradicated. No less
remarkable were advances in the Palestinians’ standard of living. By 1986, 93%
of the population in the West Bank and Gaza had electricity around the clock,
as compared with 21% in 1967; 85% had running water in dwellings, as
compared to 16% in 1967; 84% had electric or gas ranges for cooking, as
compared to 4% in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions and cars.
Finally, during the two decades preceding the intifada of the late
1980’s, the number of enrolled schoolchildren in the territories grew by
102%, though the population itself had grown by only 28%. Even more
dramatic was the progress in higher education. At the onset of the Israeli
occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not a single university existed in these
By the early 1990s, there were seven such institutions,
boasting some 16,500 students, as compared with six in Israel itself.
Illiteracy rates dropped to 14% of those over age 15, compared with 69% in
Morocco, 61% in Egypt, 45% in Tunisia, and 44% in Syria.
But all of these economic and social achievements were steadily
undone during the 1990s as the population of the territories came under the
Since the PA’s creation in May 1994, the international community
has committed an estimated US$10-billion to the Palestinian population in
the West Bank and Gaza.
But donor states turned a blind eye to the
systematic misuse of these funds. Extensive protection and racketeering
networks run by PA officials sprang up, while the national budget was
plundered at will by PLO veterans and Arafat’s cronies. Their most notorious
rackets derived from the monopoly rights for the production and sale of
virtually all basic goods affecting the population’s daily life, from wheat,
petrol, and cement, to wood, gravel, cigarettes, and cars.
This has not only allowed the ruling elite to make large profits at the
expense of ordinary Palestinians, but has also had a detrimental effect on the
economy as a whole by preventing competition and discouraging
To make things worse, from the moment of his arrival in Gaza,
Arafat set out to build an extensive terrorist infrastructure.
Eventually, Arafat resorted to outright mass violence, first in September,
1996, to publicly discredit the newly-elected Israeli prime minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, and then in September, 2000, with the launch of his all-out
terror war (euphemistically called the al-Aqsa Intifada), this shortly after
being offered by Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, the creation of an
independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 92% of the West Bank,
with East Jerusalem as its capital.
This combination of corruption and terrorism proved catastrophic. Within six
months of Arafat’s arrival in Gaza, the standard of living in
the strip fell by 25%, and more than half of the area’s residents claimed to
have been happier under Israel.
Things got much worse in 2000 – Arafat’s terror war – eradicated the
fragile fabric of civil society that had been developing in the territories during
the decades prior to his arrival. Unemployment increased from 10% to an
average of 41% during 2002, and the proportion of the population that was
poor rose from 20% to over 50%.
According to a recent World Bank report, “the precipitator of this
economic crisis has been the restriction on the movement of goods and
people” imposed by Israel to protect its citizens.
But this analysis substitutes cause for effect. For it is not the closure of
Palestinian areas that has precipitated the Palestinian economic malaise but
rather the tidal wave of suicide bombers that made this closure inevitable.
Shortly before the launch of the Palestinian war of terror, the
then-President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn justified the high levels
of international aid to the West Bank and Gaza by claiming that continued
economic development was the key to peace.
One can only wonder what Wolfensohn, who has contributed US$500,000
of his own money to the development of Gaza, thinks about the events that
have transpired in the days since the Israeli withdrawal.
Greenhouses purchased for Gazans have been looted and smashed.
Former synagogues have been burnt. The Egyptian border is being used to
smuggle weapons. (Thanks to the new glut, the price of AK-47 assault rifles
has apparently fallen by 50% in the last week.)
Meanwhile, Hamas and rogue elements from Fatah are openly
challenging the Palestinian Authority. The territory seems to be dissolving
into chaos. Some will no doubt blame Israel for this, as well.
In fact, it is Palestinians’ own leaders who bear the blame for the
miserable state of Gaza, and of Palestinian society more generally. Only
when these leaders, and the groups that challenge them, renounce violence as
a political tool and embrace civilized values such as rule of law will Gaza flourish.