Limbo Is a town in Palestine

Sadly though, as a development agency we have resigned ourselves to abandoning most of our efforts to promote agribusiness. In the past, it had been a source of hope and employment. Not anymore. During my travel to Gaza in late May, a farmer burned 10 tons of mint that he had planned to export to Europe.  It would have been a sizable income for his family of four children. But the shipments rotted in the sun when Gaza’s borders were suddenly closed again—without explanation.

There is no predictability and no control for the average person in Palestine. The World Bank has repeatedly articulated statistical findings in Palestine that are common sense to the business world:  There can be no long-term successful economy without the ability of workers to move freely, to import materials and to export finished products.

Over the past decades, despite all the enthusiasm over the Oslo agreement, one scheme after another has failed. ANERA has participated in joint industrial parks, small IT partnerships and even joint micro-credit mechanisms. Their success rate has been dismal but not because of lack of effort or intelligence on the part of local entrepreneurs. In the end, they have been unable to surmount the obstacles of checkpoints, violence and confiscations. Any new financial infusion to the region that ignores this fact could squander large amounts of well-intended money. 

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Some excitement has arisen in the West over a possible $4.2 billion initiative to stimulate growth.  But the mood of the Palestinian business community is one of exhaustion and anxiety because the present economy is barely functioning. One university vice president told me that, when government salaries are not paid to parents, students can’t pay their tuition. So, the university cannot make payments on its loans from local banks.  That financial ripple touches the local sandwich shop and the dress store. Worse yet, the community views this fragility as a long-term reality.

The average business person in the West Bank or Gaza will automatically ask what is different this time.

In his recent speech at the World Economic Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry voiced the real Palestinian concern when he spoke of shopkeepers in Ramallah:  “They should know that their businesses can flourish without the restrictions that are placed on them, or without the threat of violence.”

Meanwhile in Tubas, Gaza and Hebron unemployment and the cost of living are wearing families down. Through the generosity of some US shoe manufacturers, we have been able to ship containers of children’s footwear into Palestine. But there are still so many neighborhoods where children have no shoes.  I say this only as an illustration of how bad the situation has become, even during a period of relative calm.

ANERA has 65 staff in the West Bank and Gaza who are sophisticated, well-educated pharmacists, engineers, educators and development specialists. They have competitive salaries and benefits that allow them to live comparatively well. Of all segments of Palestinian society, they should have the brightest futures and most options. Yet, two of them approached me during my May visit and announced that they are actively pursuing immigration to the United States. They said they are no longer willing to live under closures, home seizures and body searches.

The economy is struggling and requires substantial investment.  But any financial intervention is merely a band-aid unless substantial changes are made to the conditions under which Palestinian families and businesses exist.  

Corcoran is president of the American Near East Refuge Aid (ANERA), a U.S. nonprofit that, since 1968, has been a leading provider of development, health, education and employment programs to Palestinian communities and impoverished families throughout the Middle East.
 

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