MAXWELL: Joined at the hip, dragging each other down

3/9/2003 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

After a Palestinian set off a bomb in a bus in Israel’s northern city of Haifa a few days ago that killed himself and 15 other people, Haifa police spokesman Gil Kleiman told the New York Times: “Although we had two months of apparent quiet, it wasn’t quiet at all. It was just that the battle had been taken from our bedrooms to their backyards.”

Kleiman’s words and their occasion manifest the bitter ironies of the more-than-half-century-old bloodbath between the state of Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. While Israeli civilians had been spared any serious Palestinian attacks during the last two months in this 29-month-old round of violence, the same cannot be said for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Most Western leaders, including President Bush, argue that Israel has a right to defend itself. Who ever says that the Palestinian diaspora has a right to defend itself? Are they not human beings, too?

Since mid-February, the Israeli army has raided Palestinian towns and camps almost nightly, killing dozens of militants and innocent civilians and destroying homes and other properties. Before then, Israeli forces regularly invaded Palestinian territory at will.

The greatest irony in this newest intifada is that the Israelis, especially Prime Minister Ariel Sharon _ who sparked the violence with his wrongheaded trek to the Temple Mount _ fail to comprehend the broad, yet delicate, symbiotic relationship between the two cultures. In fact, the two peoples are joined at the hip, as it were.

Sharon does not comprehend the relationship because he is arrogant, duplicitous, blindly militaristic and contemptuous of Arabs. Because Sharon, along with most other Israelis, fails to see symbiosis, the conflict worsens by the day and promises to continue for many years to come.

One of Sharon’s goals, even at the cost of hurting fellow Jews, has been to beat and strangle the Palestinians into submission. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority and militant groups have been used as convenient scapegoats for a pre-existing mission to subdue Palestinians. Everything about Sharon’s public life shows that he has attacked Arabs.

Sharon’s new government includes factions that were established to remove Palestinians forever from the region. Warren-like refugee camps, such as recently attacked Jabaliya, with 110,000 occupants, are not enough for these Jewish extremists. They believe in zero tolerance _ no Palestinians in the lands the biblical God gave to Jews.

Israelis and Palestinians are tied together in many ways, but the most visible and most important is the relationship between the two economies. What one is, the other is. I have not been to Israel and the Palestinian territories in more than two years, but when I was there last, I had my pick of hotels, eateries and other stores. Today, many hotels are closed and so are the businesses that catered to them.

The same is true of Gaza and the West Bank, where I had no trouble finding affordable room and board. Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem was gleaming and booming. I even found bargains on jewelry and other tourist junk. No more.

The World Bank released a study a few days ago showing that nearly 2-million Palestinians in the region, three times the number since Sharon sparked the intifada, live below the poverty level of a whopping $2 a day. The new statistics mean that, according to the World Bank’s definition, 60 percent of the Palestinian diaspora lives in poverty.

Foreign investment in the Palestinian economy fell from an estimated $1.5-billion in 1999 to a meagre $140-million in 2002. Many successful business owners who sold their merchandise in thriving malls now grow basic crops to survive.

On the other side, the Israeli economy is taking a similar hit, the worst in 30 years. By stubbornly pursuing the military, no-negotiating initiative, Sharon is being forced to make even deeper cuts in social services. Foreign investment _ not counting the United States’ annual $4-billion-plus aid package _ continues to dry up. Cheap Palestinian labor is all but gone, and Israeli shopkeepers no longer have their Arab customers to keep the doors open.

Tourism, one of the region’s most viable sources of income, has been scared off by the continued violence.

The Palestinian economy is being saved from collapse by international aid that has amounted to about $2-billion during the last two years. As Palestinian fortunes fall, so are those of Israel.

These two Semitic partners apparently have decided that hubris _ which almost always leads to self-destruction _ is more important than sitting down at the negotiating table and engaging in some serious give and take.