Palestine's Self-Inflicted Wounds
By Terrell E. Arnold

Almost every week the world watches the Israeli Defense Force march, fly or drive into a new area of the West Bank and Gaza and wreak new havoc. Not every week, but too often, the Palestinian reply is a suicide bombing. The Israeli claim, widely carried in all major media, is that the whole problem is caused by Palestinian terrorism. The Palestinian complaint is that they are being repressed and their people and their society are being systematically destroyed by Israeli military and intelligence operations. That charge is absolutely true, but it goes largely unheeded.

At no time in recent memory has a well organized, equipped and funded military force dealt so harshly with a virtually defenseless population. The obvious intent and the likely outcomes of this Israeli effort, if allowed to run its course, are the destruction of the Palestinian state and the dispersal of its people. So far, the results, perversely, have given Israel little satisfaction and much grief. Instead, both Israel and the Palestinians have been the victims of self-inflicted wounds.

By most accounts the Israeli economy has been imploding at a scary rate since the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada two years ago and especially since the Israeli Defense Force invasions of the West Bank and Gaza during the past few months. To be sure, Israelâs economy, which perhaps more than any other economy in the region has its fortunes tied to the West and to the United States, was severely affected by the after-effects of September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. This was followed by the financial market effects of the Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals. Nevertheless, the Palestine conflict is a continuing and probably deepening drag on Israelâs economic fortunes. And its consequences are much more the products of Israel's own actions than they are the results of Palestinian attacks.

The economic downturn is driven daily by developments around the conflict. Responsive to suicide bombings, especially in favored tourism sites such as Jerusalem, tourist travel to Israel has been reduced by more than 50%. That amounts to 1.5% or more of the whole economy since the conflict heated up. Construction and agricultural sectors have slowed materially due to the absence of the more than 100,000 Palestinian workers (some say twice that number including non registered workers) who fuel these sectors.

Unemployment in Palestinian sectors, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the disruptions caused by military incursions and the imposition of curfews have cut Palestinian income and spending on most products, even on food and basic services. While unemployment in Israel is said to be approaching 10%, it is estimated at a much higher 50-60 percent or more in the West Bank and Gaza. Much of the Palestinian market is typically served by businesses in Israel or handled by Israeli pass-throughs, which benefit the Israeli economy.

A large economic effect, probably the largest, has been created by diversions of the national treasure to the Israeli Defense Force, estimated to be equivalent to more than ten billion dollars. This is robbing resources from all other sectors of Israeli economic activity, as well as building large national debts. 

All of these are in part self-inflicted wounds to the Israeli economy. There is hardly any doubt remaining that the Israeli Defense Force incursions, and the excesses usually associated with them, have generated a continuing series of suicide bombers. These have undermined safety and security in Israel, frightening tourists away while shattering foreign investor confidence.

One Jewish source has suggested that Sharon knows he must have the suicide bombings to justify his brutal attacks in the West Bank and Gaza. Without the bombings, this source indicated, Sharon would face irresistible pressure from the United States, other governments and the United Nations to cease his campaign. That is certainly true, and it raises a serious question as to whether the harsh attacks are deliberately designed to provoke Palestinian retaliation, mainly the bombings, to keep alive Sharon's program to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank. The unspoken price of this strategy would be the lives of Israeli civilians, including women and children. Those would be leadership- inflicted wounds.

While the Palestinian Authority is well aware that Israel uses the suicide bombings as virtually the only excuse for harsh military reprisals and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians have no defenses. It is doubtful that, even with a hard line effort, Arafat could stop all suicide bombings. The prices Palestinians pay are occupation, curfew, harassment, attacks on civilians, frequent shootings, and arrests by Israeli forces.

Perversely, even though the ability of the Israeli Defense Force to prevent terrorist attacks is totally unproven, each bombing has unleashed more military incursions, leading to extreme actions such as the 1,000-pound bomb on a family housing compound in Gaza, which, in turn, led to more Palestinian attacks. By now the lesson is clear: Brutal military action does not stop, rather it provokes small scale, but devastating terrorist attacks. It is time to halt. The safety of the Israelis, the economic future of Israel, and the future of the Palestinians are all in jeopardy because of the continuing conflict.

There are more self-inflicted wounds. American Jews and others within Israel continue to go into the West Bank and Gaza to build or expand settlements. The current target, much publicized in US media, is Gaza. This increases Palestinian anger and frustration, further arousing the prospect of terrorist attacks, either on settlers or on people in Israel. The Israeli victims need to know that part of the causes, if not all of them in some cases, are the actions of other Israelis. The Palestinians need to wake up to the fact that their strategy, such as it is, does not work either.

Calls for building a fence around the Palestinians recently became a popular idea among some Israelis and some prominent Jews in America. That fence, if built, will do a number of things, none of them good. It will physically codify the pattern of enmity and distrust that exists between the two peoples. It will impose a responsibility and an expense on the Israeli fence keepers to be sure the integrity of the fence is maintained. It will impose an obligation on Palestinian extremists to thwart it. It will disrupt a mutually beneficial commerce between the two markets. It will serve as a daily reminder to Palestinians that the Israeli consider them second-class people at best. It will re-impose a barrier between the Israeli and the people of the region that many Israeli and Palestinians have spent half a century trying to overcome. Finally, it will precisely define a long-term target for anti-Israeli terrorists. All of those represent potential but deferred self-inflicted wounds.

Over the past months it has become increasingly clear, by Israeli actions and in policy statements of Ariel Sharon, that the aim of Israeli operations is to finish a process begun in the late 1940s - to drive the Palestinian people out of all areas of Palestine west of the Jordan River and perhaps beyond. If that strategy succeeds, the Israeli people for generations to come can expect to pay for it through continuing exposure to random, destructive and potentially deadly terrorist attacks. Those attacks will be the ultimate self-inflicted wounds, because Israel is unlikely ever to be at peace, and as 9-11 demonstrated, even the most powerful are not immune.

Terrell E. Arnold is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the United States Department of State.


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