Last Wednesday, Sept. 10, Dan Fleshler (an Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now activist) and I were among about 40 people who crowded the conference room at Beit Shalom to hear journalist Danny Rubinstein speak at a program co-sponsored by Meretz USA, Ameinu and APN. Rubinstein has covered Palestinian affairs for the Haaretz daily newspaper for decades. He retired recently from Haaretz to write a weekly column for a new Hebrew-language business journal, Calculit.
Dan has just blogged about Ethan Bronner’s article in last Friday’s NY Times, which reports on a new level of cooperation between the Gilboa region of Israel and its neighbor, the West Bank city of Jenin. Bronner reports that Jenin is recovering economically and enjoying a new level of security due to international and Israeli interactions with local Palestinians. This cooperation is spearheaded by the efforts of Israeli Palestinians (Arab citizens of Israel) and marked by social relations as well as economic and security measures. For example, there is a photograph of Jewish and Arab dancers performing together at a festival held in Israel for a competition testing knowledge of the Bible and the Koran.
Dan felt that it might be too much detail to add Danny Rubinstein’s insights to this story, but he readily agrees that they dovetail nicely. Rubinstein also reports a surprising growth in economic prosperity in the West Bank, but still against the backdrop of bitter Palestinian disappointments on the political level.
Rubinstein has found that many prominent Palestinians have left their political careers with the Palestinian Authority in disgust. For example, Jabril Rajoub is now head of the Palestinian soccer association, and another he mentioned is a vice chancellor at Bir Zeit University. At the same time, there are hardly any professional-level positions in the Palestinian territories. Engineering jobs, for example, are basically to be had in the booming oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf – educated Palestinians are now flocking to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. One source of the new prosperity in the West Bank are remittances home from these people in the Gulf.
Another source (but only temporary) is that this was the shmitta (sabbatical) year in Israel – in which religious Jews are not supposed to grow their crops or buy food from Jewish farmers. This has caused a boom in the West Bank’s agricultural sector.
Moreover, Rubinstein reports that the security barrier has not prevented an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Palestinians from working illegally in Israel. He sees the barrier as being of some limited value in preventing terrorism (it makes it more difficult for attackers to cross), but points out that since so many illegals are making it across, it is not a total protection.
He credits Tony Blair and the international community to some extent in helping the West Bank economy boom as an object lesson to the people of Gaza that their lives can improve if they are no longer under Hamas rule. Still, Rubinstein sees Hamas as a permanent actor in Palestinian politics and says that its success in clamping down on attacks on Israel to keep the ceasefire going is a sign that Hamas wants to be taken seriously as a political player.
According to Rubinstein, the popularity of Hamas is a result of the secular nationalists of Fatah having failed to deliver a free and sovereign state for their people. He sees the weakness in most of the Arab world being that when the secular nationalists fail, the religious fundamentalists come to the fore because these are the only organized opposition ready to assume power. Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement; the Gaza Strip is the only place where the Muslim Brotherhood actually rules.
Rubinstein shares the opinion of most observers that the governments of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are too weak to come to an enforceable agreement in the near term. He sees a coalition government of Hamas and Fatah as the only viable way in which the Palestinians can move forward to an agreement with Israel that would stick.
He does not see Marwan Barghouti as a “savior” but does see his release from an Israeli prison as necessary and a positive step. Rubinstein would agree with the opinion advanced in the Bronner article in the NY Times that people to people projects are a way to make progress on the ground, building peace from the ground up.