The economy of survival in occupied Palestine

Qalandia stalls

Stalls at the entrance of the Qalandia "terminal": apartheid wall

Several facts drew my attention on the occasion of my first visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2006. First, and perhaps the most important, was the high degree of diversification of its economy, a result of the fragmentation of the markets –into what are in fact local marketplaces-, and secondly its relative isolation from the outside world. You have a range of local manufactured products very unusual to find in a small and developing economy. From the bottling of mineral water in Jericho to the sweet production in Nablus, and the kitchenware made in Hebron, the foreign visitor is amazed by the manufacturing capacity of the subjugated Palestinian people, by its will to survive.

Third, and as result of the former, the disparity of prices across the country is somewhat surprising for the foreign visitor. A cup of tea that costs 10 New Israeli Shekels (NIS) in the asphyxiated and now encircled East Jerusalem, costs just a third in Nablus or Jericho and is of better quality. These differences of price are in no way surprising as the military occupation, with its curfews and check points, has put the Palestinian economy back to a pre-industrial state in terms of the mobility of its population.

Next, and perhaps the most surprising, the European visitor is amazed by the virtual absence of beggars or unproductive jobs (if that is what they are) such as parking “assistants” or gorrillas as they are called in Andalusia, something frequent in southern Europe and northern Africa.

In addition, the degree of entrepreneurialism of Palestinians is unusually high compared to other parts of the world. In the streets of Bethlehem or Jericho (arguably the oldest city in the world) one can be approached by ingenious and impoverished sellers that conveniently offer you anything from a keffiah (the traditional Palestinian garment) to a glass of lemonade and a nice central Asia stylish cap (which I bought one); at very reasonable prices and without the hard selling that happens in other Arab countries. Such products are made at home by the Palestinian women to support their struggling and numerous families.

All these features of Palestinian society do not seem to be just a present-day phenomenon. In the ruins of Lifta, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a town terrorized by the early armed Zionist militias at the time of the Partition in 1947, the metallic beams are witness to an advanced building technology unknown to many parts of western Europe at that time. Perhaps because their economies were not as open as Palestine’s was in the interwar period, then in the British Empire under the League of Nations’ Mandate.

The Palestinian people do not know hunger, just the hardship and misery of the Israeli military occupation, now especially in the Gaza Strip, a territory under siege by land, air and sea by the Israeli army. In addition, since January 2006 the European governments have been punishing the Palestinians of Gaza (more than 1.4 million, most of them refugees) for their free choice in democratic elections, cutting any kind of co-operation with the new elected authorities; the suffering of Gazans can only increase. As a result, apart from pushing them to civil war, this further ostracism will reduce even more the opportunity cost of their lives (what they lose in case of death), burdened with depression and their cloudy outlook, already very low.

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