World Bank legitimising illegal Israeli occupation of West Bank

29 September 2008 | Guest comment

Since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1994, the World Bank has been heavily involved in the development projects of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Following Hamas’ electoral and military victory and the subsequent ousting of forces loyal to PNA president Abu Mazen from Gaza, Bank development projects and funding have focused more exclusively on the West Bank. The appointment of former Bank employee Salam Fayyad as prime minister in 2007 has only strengthened the Bank’s influence on PNA economic and development policies.

The Fayyad government has created four different “strategy groups” (governance, economy, social development and humanitarian aid, infrastructure) along with 13 sub-working groups. Each is co-chaired by a donor or IFI official and a PNA minister. These groups are responsible for planning, implementing and monitoring government policy and allocating the budget. This structure creates an illegitimate shadow government paired with an unelected government, erasing any possibility of independent decision-making and democracy.

A second level of international control and restrictions is added because the majority of PNA funding today runs through various internationally controlled trust funds. The World Bank trust fund disburses funding only after a triple set of assessments and audits to ensure that the overall performance of the PNA does not deviate from the framework of the Palestinian Development and Reform Plan 2008 – 2010 (PRDP). The PRDP was drafted by the British development agency DFID, presented at the donor conference in Paris in December 2007 and adopted by the Fayyad government. Not surprisingly the PRDP does not differ from the overall World Bank “development” framework.

The Bank’s approach to development in Palestine hinges on the full acceptance of the status quo – including continued occupation and the presence of the settlements and the wall – as well as joint projects that require PNA-Israeli cooperation, often with a third international partner. Politically, these development projects threaten to legitimise Israeli claims in regards to the wall, Jerusalem, land annexation and settlements that have resulted in the fragmentation and ghettoisation of the West Bank and Gaza. The only new aspect is that in addition to traditional industrial sweatshop projects, World Bank plans now include border industrial zones, agro-business in the Jordan Valley (see Update 58)and the tourism industry.

The tourism project proposed for Bethlehem illustrates the risks associated with joint work, as well as the general problems facing development under occupation. The Fayyad government, the World Bank, and the French government are backing a project which aims to reinvigorate the wrecked Palestinian tourism sector through encouraging and facilitating foreign tourism, but this would de facto legitimise the Israeli occupation and control over Palestinian borders.

The seemingly innocuous focus of the project is to encourage tourism by facilitating travel to the West Bank through Israel. Far from innocuous, this recognises critical Israeli claims in and around Bethlehem. For example, the plans call for the creation of “tourist friendly checkpoints” requiring additional lanes and special treatment of foreign passport holders. This will further institutionalise Israeli military checkpoints which, along with the wall and settlements, have turned the Bethlehem district into a fragmented, isolated ghetto. The separation of tourists and Palestinians also serves Israeli needs, ensuring that visitors will not witness or experience the inhumane and degrading treatment reserved for the Palestinian population. Equally as damaging is the recognition of East Jerusalem as “Israel”, and the checkpoints and the wall as a legitimate border, thereby explicitly compromising Palestinian rights to their capital.

Economically, the Bethlehem project leaves the tourism sector vulnerable to the same problems that destroyed the industry in the first place, namely occupation, land theft and movement restrictions. The focus on foreign tourism is an attempt to sustain the ghetto system imposed on the West Bank. By definition, this excludes domestic tourism, the backbone of any solid tourism sector, which has been crushed. The latest numbers collected by the Palestinian statistics agency indicate that 64.5 per cent of West Bank families were unable to engage in domestic tourism in 2007. In the end, attempts to work with and around the occupation end up legitimising it while failing to address key tourism concerns.

The problems with joint projects are not limited to Bethlehem, but are rather indicative of a larger challenge facing Palestinian development. At the root of Palestinian development woes is the Israeli occupation, and it is ultimately contradictory to expect that cooperation with the occupier can lead toward any sort of meaningful development. The balance of power ensures that the terms of development will be dictated by Israeli politicians and planners and thus be anathema to Palestinian economic freedom and political liberation.

Dawood Hammoudeh, Stop the Wall, Palestine global@stopthewall.org