August 18, 2009.
“The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” declared
United Sates President Barack Obama in his June 4 Cairo address.
Really? Compared to what? Things are tough all over. The
Palestinians are one of many groups displaced by the population
exchanges that followed World War II, and the only ones whose
great-grandchildren still have the legal status of refugees.
Why are they still there? The simplest explanation is that they
like it there, because they are much better off than people of similar
capacities in other Arab countries.
The standard tables of gross domestic product (GDP) per capital
show the West Bank and Gaza at US$1,700, just below Egypt’s
$1,900 and significantly below Syria’s $2,250 and Jordan’s $3,000.
GDP does not include foreign aid, however, which adds roughly 30%
to spendable funds in the Palestinian territories.
Most important, the denominator of the GDP per capita
equation – the number of people – is far lower than official data
indicate. According to an authoritative study by the Begin-Sadat
Center for Strategic Studies , the West Bank and Gaza population
in 2004 was only 2.5 million, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by
the Palestinian authorities. The numbers are inflated to increase
Adjusting for the Begin-Sadat Center population count and adding in
foreign aid, GDP per capita in the West Bank and Gaza comes to
$3,380, much higher than in Egypt and significantly higher than in
Syria or Jordan. Why should any Palestinian refugee resettle in a
neighboring Arab country?
GDP per capita, moreover, does not reflect the spending power of
ordinary people. Forty-four percent of Egyptians, for example, live on
less than $2 a day, the United Nations estimates. The enormous
state bureaucracy eats up a huge portion of national income. New
immigrants to Egypt who do not have access to government jobs are
likely to live far more poorly than per capita GDP would suggest.
Other data confirm that Palestinians enjoy a higher living standard
than their Arab neighbors. A fail-safe gauge is life expectancy. The
West Bank and Gaza show better numbers than most of the Muslim
Life Expectancy by Country in Years
West Bank and Gaza 73.4
Saudi Arabia 72.8
Source: United Nations
Literacy in the Palestinian Authority domain is 92.4%, equal to that
of Singapore. That is far better than the 71.4% in Egypt, or 80.8%
Without disputing Obama’s claim that life for the Palestinians is
intolerable, it is fair to ask: where is life not intolerable in the Arab
world? When the first UN Arab Development Report appeared in
2002, it elicited comments such as this one from the London
Economist: “With barely an exception, its autocratic rulers, whether
presidents or kings, give up their authority only when they die; its
elections are a sick joke; half its people are treated as lesser legal
and economic beings, and more than half its young, burdened by
joblessness and stifled by conservative religious tradition, are said to
want to get out of the place as soon as they can.”
intolerable for the Arabs generally; their best poet, the Syrian
“Adonis” – Ali Ahmad Said Asbar – calls them an “extinct people”.
Palestinian Arabs are highly literate, richer and healthier than people
in most other Arab countries, thanks to the United Nations Relief and
Works Agency and the blackmail payments of Western as well as
Arab governments. As refugees, they live longer and better than their
counterparts in adjacent Arab countries. It is not surprising that they
do not want to be absorbed into other Arab countries and cease to
If the Palestinians ceased to be refugees, moreover, it is not clear
how they would maintain their relatively advantaged position. They
cannot return to farming; for all the tears about bulldozed olive
groves, no one in the West Bank will ever make a living selling olive
oil, except perhaps by selling “Holy Land” products to Christian
tourists. Apart from tourism, the only non-subsidy source of income
the Palestinians had was day labor in Israel, but security concerns
close that off. Light manufacturing never will compete with Asia,
and surely not during a prolonged period of global overcapacity.
An alternative is for the Palestinians to continue to live off subsidies.
But why should they? Why should Western taxpayers subsidize an
Arab in Ramallah, when Arabs in Egypt are needier? The answer is
that they represent a security concern for Western countries, who
believe that they are paying to limit violence. That only makes sense
if the threat of violence remains present in the background and flares
up frequently enough to be credible. One cannot simply
stage-manage such things. A sociology of violence in which a
significant proportion of the population remains armed.
To contain the potential violence of an armed population, donors to
the Palestinian authority hire a very large proportion of young men as
policemen or paramilitaries. According to a February 10, 2008,
report by Steven Stotsky :
Overhauling the Palestinian security forces will cost $4.2 to
$7 billion over the next five years. What’s more, the recent aid
package agreed on in Paris committing to $7.4 billion for the
Palestinians doesn’t contain any provision for the security services.
The Reuters report follows a piece in the Jordan Times announcing
plans to train a 50,000-person police force for the West Bank. This
translates to one police officer for every 42-70 citizens (depending
on which population figures for the West Bank are accepted), an
unprecedented concentration of police presence.
Currently, there are only 7,000 Palestinian police officers in
the West Bank (Reuters, January 13, 2008), so the new plan calls
for a seven-fold increase.
The planned expansion would result in a density of police at
least three to four times that of major American cities that have to
contend with much higher crime rates than the West Bank.
Add to this bloated police force the numerous other state security
organizations as well as private militias, and it is clear that security is
the biggest business in the Palestinian territories and the largest
employer of young men. The number of armed Palestinian fighters is
estimated at around 80,000 or more than six times the soldiers per
capita in the United States. About one out of four Palestinian men
between the ages of 20 and 40 makes a living carrying a gun.
That is, the economic structure of “pre-state” Palestine is heavily
skewed towards the sort of institutionalized means of violence that
is supposed to disappear once a state has been established. This is
absurd, and creates a double disincentive for the Palestinians to
maintain a low boil of violence. Just how this violence-centered
society is supposed to make the transition to an ordinary civil society
is an unanswerable question.
Once the problem is diagnosed with this kind of clarity, the solution
Cut Western support to the Palestinians with the aim of reducing
living standards in the West Bank to those prevailing in Egypt, as an
incentive for emigration.
Demilitarize Palestinian society: offer a reward for turning in
weapons, seize them when necessary, and give newly-unemployed
gunmen employment weaving baskets at half pay.
Like many obvious solutions, this one never will be put into practice.
The problem all along has been the wrong set of expectations. Once
Palestinian Arabs adjust their expectations to correspond to levels of
income, education and health prevailing in other Arab countries in the
region, they can either form a state similar to other Arab states in
the region, or simply emigrate to those states as individuals.
The Palestinians cannot form a normal state. They cannot emigrate
to Arab countries without accepting a catastrophic decline in living
standards, and very few can emigrate to Western countries. The
optimal solution for the Palestinians is to demand a state and
blackmail Western and Arab donors with the threat of violence, but
never actually get one.
That is why the Palestinian issue is “hopeless, but not serious”, in
the words of my old mentor Norman A Bailey, a former national
security official. As long as all concerned understand that the
comedy is not supposed to have an ending, the Palestinians can
persist quite tolerably in their “intolerable” predicament.
1. The Million Person Gap: The Arab Population in the West
Bank and Gaza, Bennett Zimmerman, Roberta Seid and Michael L
Wise, February 2006. The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies,
Bar-ilan University, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 65. Click
2. Plan for Palestinian Police Force Seven Times Larger than
Current Force by Steven Stotsky, February 10, 2008.