My following review appears in the US publication Mondoweiss:
Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I.B. Taurus), by Toufic Haddad
The Israeli media barely covers Palestine. Although many local, corporate outlets have “Arab affairs” correspondents, a faintly colonial position that reeks of paternalism, 99.9 percent of Jewish journalists live in Israel proper (or the occupied, Palestinian territories) and barely spend any serious time in Palestine (except when serving in the IDF). The lack of Palestinian perspectives is striking considering the geographic closeness of the two peoples.
With notable exceptions such as Haaretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who live in the West Bank or constantly visit it, as well as 972 Magazine, the inevitable outcome is that most Israelis view Palestinians through a security framework. The media reinforces this inherent bias. Palestinians are seen as a foreign threat to be feared or loathed, unless proven otherwise. It’s therefore unsurprising that contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is increasingly rare unless occurring at a military checkpoint or Israeli-run, industrial park in the West Bank.
These issues go beyond the Israeli press. I’ve long believed that the more international journalists who live in a city or country the worse the reporting will be. This may be a strange conclusion and counter-factual. Surely the more eyes and ears in one place will improve coverage? In fact, the opposite happens because a herd mentality quickly develops and few journalists, despite convincing themselves otherwise, want to stand out. Think of London, Washington, Canberra and Jerusalem and the lack of distinctive voices emanating from these locations. Too many reporters live and breathe the same air, speak to the same sources, dine in the same places and socialise with the same people. I’m not immune, being a journalist myself, but I’ve spent my professional life rejecting the comforting embrace of stenography reporting.
When I lived in South Sudan in 2015, the lack of critical journalists (or any reporters at all) resulted in a country on the verge of genocide being mostly ignored in the international arena (though of course the state’s strategic importance was tragically far less important than Israel). Embedded journalism, not just the act of working alongside military forces but psychologically aligning oneself with governments and officials while granting them anonymity, is the opposite of adversarial journalism.
It’s shameful that in 2017 the vast bulk of foreign journalists living in Israel and working for corporate media outlets can’t speak proficient Hebrew or Arabic. Barely anybody is permanently based in the West Bank, let alone Gaza.
Isn’t it about time to rely far less on Westerners to explain the Middle East and instead develop and support Arab reporters with more lived and historical understanding? Or utilise Westerners with greater global experience than just working inside insular press galleries? Or how about anti-Zionists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, being allowed more airtime? The effect of bubble journalism in Jerusalem is pervasive.
Palestinian voices have never been more essential, especially as 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and yet Jewish and Zionist, American journalists still play a key role in explaining the conflict to American audiences. Where are the Arab and Palestinian voices to compliment and challenge what Zionists have been claiming in the press for decades? The New York Times still longs for the two-state solution and foolishly thinks it can be saved.
This lack of Palestinian agency in the mainstream media could be so easily corrected. Reading Palestine Ltd and learning from it would be a strong start. Toufic Haddad has produced a stunning indictment of the international consensus over Palestine and the failed Oslo “peace process”. Endorsed by Naomi Klein and recently launched to a full house in East Jerusalem – I attended and found Haddad’s talk compelling in its evidence-based denunciation of the US and foreign donors to the Palestinian cause in the last 20 years – Palestine Ltd paints a grim picture of Palestinian hopes for statehood. Haddad shows how it was killed at birth.
In his introduction, Haddad explains the central thesis on promises made to the Palestinians since the 1990s by the donor community. “Implicit to these interventions”, he writes, “was the notion that the market’s invisible hand would guide Israelis and Palestinians to peace, provided the international community financially and politically backed this arrangement and facilitated the creation of an adequate incentives arrangement. The arrival of these political winds to the conflict-ridden shores of the Palestinian setting through Western donor peacebuilding and statebuilding policies thus set the stage for what happened when ‘an army of fighters for freedom’ faced off against a former army of Palestinian nationalist ‘freedom fighters’, embodied in the PLO.”
Palestine has become a business, a very profitable one, for any number of engaged actors from donors to Western states. “Palestine Ltd can be loosely described as the operational endgame of Western donor development/peacebuilding/statebuilding interventions”, Haddad argues, “with this entity functioning as a variant of a limited shareholding company (Ltd.) with international, regional and local investors of one type or the other.”
The strength of the book is the way it methodically shows how any serious Palestinian autonomy was deliberately designed to fail from the beginning. Many Western donors in the 1990s and now claim that they’re acting in good faith, believing that being pro-Palestinian means funnelling more money into the Palestinian Authority (PA), and yet after decades of entrenched cronyism and Israeli occupation, at what point should the money simply stop, the PA be abolished and Israel forced to manage its own occupation and the people within it? This is a reality that Israel fears and explains why, despite the stream of invective against the PA from Israeli ministers, co-ordination between the PA and Israel is constant and unlikely to end.
Haddad investigates World Bank pronouncements in the 1990s, ideas that became the basis for the failed economic experiment still underway in Palestine. “World Bank economists very obviously ignored reference to the exaggerated political determination of the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] under a protracted settler, colonial arrangement characterised by the massive social and political upheaval and structural deformities of all kinds.”
This wilful blindness is reminiscent of World Bank and other global financial institutions treating Greece like a punching bag while its economy crashed and people suffered. Little care or interest was given to the precarious state of lives being lost or scarred due to extreme austerity after the 2008 financial crisis. Both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) carried on regardless of public protest in Greece, governmental opposition and soaring social ills. Privatisation was the supposed panacea. Selling off public assets was the answer. In fact, it failed, as it always does, yet nobody was held to account.
Similarly in Palestine, Haddad reveals that private sector-led “growth” was the World Bank’s priority from the 1990s. Its stated dream was against “turning inwards” and instead backing the need for the West Bank and Gaza to “open up opportunities elsewhere, especially in Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf countries while maintaining open trade relations with Israel.”
In 2016, the UN found that the Palestinian economy would be at least twice as large if the Israeli occupation was lifted. The restriction of goods, people and movement has devastated daily life. In Gaza, the situation is even worse. When I visited in late 2016, I was told by the UN and many civilians that the nearly 10 year-old siege, imposed by Israel, had never been tighter. Egypt has been equally responsible for the dire humanitarian situation.
Gaza is largely ignored by the Israeli media but a recent interview in Haaretz, with a Palestinian living in the West Bank who works on a mobile clinic in Gaza with Physicians for Human Rights, detailed the desperate environment. An Haaretz editorial in January called for an end to Israel’s punishment of the Gaza Strip.
The dominant narrative around Israel/Palestine today is the brutal and effective ways by which the settler movement has come to define both Israel’s present and future. From its perspective, building colonies on Palestinian land has been hugely successful and the numbers of settlers in the West Bank has surged under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Palestine Ltd doesn’t ignore the settlements but its focus is mostly elsewhere. Take Israel’s determination to secure water and energy resources and how this affected its behaviour during the early “peace process” of the 1990s. Haddad interviews Dr Nabil Sha’ath, a top figure in the PLO and the Fatah political party. In a revealing quote, Sha’ath recalls a meeting with former Israeli Minister of Energy Moshe Shahal:
“[Shahal] tried his best to create a relationship with me when I first came in. He came with a Rabin proposal: ‘Let’s share the energy trade, the energy industry and energy transportation.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘There is going to be peace’, he said. ‘You are not going to be happy if we simply use that peace to get back the pipelines through Haifa from Saudi Arabia and from Iraq [which were built by the British and stopped operating after the establishment of Israel in 1948]. So I’m suggesting that we go together to the Arabs to share fifty-fifty the export of gas through pipelines that come to Gaza and to Ashdod…To Rabin it looked like the Palestinian Authority was a very necessary component for seeking water and energy from the Arabs.”
More than two decades later, the picture couldn’t be more different. Israel routinely withholds water and electricity from the Palestinian territories, exploits a massive natural gas find off the Gaza Strip and is investigating gas pipelines to Turkey and Greece. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are reliant on the benevolence of their rulers, Israel along with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
The deliberate Israeli plan in the last decades to inflame tensions with the Palestinians, and convince both Israelis and the international community that there are no partners for peace on the other side – a view not shared by the Israeli intelligence services – has played out as expected. Hostilities are deepened because they serve political ends. Haddad writes that, “Israel intended to induce a powerful shock-like effect within Palestinian society and leadership alike. This was critical to creating sudden conditions of crisis whose reverberations would be experienced on all levels of Palestinian life, leveraged in both active and passive ways.”
Palestinians are still deemed unworthy of freedom, independence or full rights. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, the Rupert Murdoch-approved hater of Palestinians and Arabs and supporter of bombing the Muslim world, wrote in early January that Palestinians didn’t deserve a state of their own. The word “occupation” was unsurprisingly absent from his screed.
Palestinians have never forgotten how they’ve been betrayed by the forces that claimed to liberate them from Israeli control. After the 2006 Palestinian election, won by Hamas in a stunning rebuke to the Western-backed, Palestinian Authority, Western donors capitulated to Israeli and US pressure and boycotted the result, imposing a financial and political blockade on the government. Haddad argues that this sent a “clear message to the Palestinian electorate regarding how genuine Western donors were in their demands for Palestinian reform or a liberal peace agreement.”
The Trump administration has the capacity and interest to radically shift the staid alignment of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mouthing platitudes about the two-state solution is likely to subside or disappear entirely. Israel will increase its settlement project with little or no pressure from Washington. The Palestinian Authority, despite having opponents in the US Congress, is a necessary fig-leaf for Israel’s colonisation project.
Palestine Ltd is both a necessary history lesson and guide for the future if past mistakes and delusions are to be avoided. The current trajectory in Palestine, however, points to political stalemate unless a younger, less corrupt and more capable Palestinian leadership takes power and stops relying on empty Western aid promises.