WASHINGTON — Deteriorating economic and social conditions in the West Bank and Gaza soon may render the territories ungovernable, according to a growing number of reports from Israeli and American government agencies and international humanitarian organizations.
With the Bush administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace-making efforts on hold until after Israeli elections in late January — and probably until a resolution of the crisis with Iraq — several other governments, including Great Britain and Egypt, have entered the void and are attempting to help the Palestinians fulfill their part of the proposed “road map” to peace. Most observers pin few hopes on these efforts, however, and some predict that the chaos in the territories will mount, making hopes of creating a new, more pragmatic leadership a delusion.
One ranking former American diplomat with close ties to the Palestinians bluntly told Yasser Arafat two weeks ago that he may face exile or death in the coming months if Islamist organizations continue their campaign of suicide bombings, if the United States attacks Iraq and if Prime Minister Sharon forms a rightist coalition after elections — all plausible assumptions.
Arafat is “obviously aware of that,” as are many other Palestinians, said the diplomat, Edward Abington, a former American consul general in East Jerusalem who now serves as the main Washington lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority.
“They know that the Palestinian Authority could very well collapse in the spring,” Abington said, adding that this should not be interpreted as good news by either Israel or the United States. Without a central government, he said, the West Bank and Gaza would spiral into chaos — the process has already begun — with violent gangs ruling the streets and militant Islamic organizations attempting to fill the void. In Gaza, Abington said, credible Palestinian sources report that Hamas, the leading Islamic militant group, could easily take over governance of daily life within six months after a collapse of the P.A. “What is likely to come after Arafat, therefore, is a much more radicalized, much more militant and fragmented collection of people,” Abington said.
Under the pressure of Israeli security measures — which Israel says are needed to prevent terrorism — “the economy has collapsed” in the territories, said Peter Gubser, president of American Near East Refugee Aid, a non-profit agency that supplies humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. “Most of the P.A.’s institutions are destroyed — physically, they are simply not there any more. The health delivery system does continue, and the schools too, to an extent, but not much more than these two aspects of government,” said Gubser, who recently returned from a visit to the West Bank.
Reports by international agencies — one issued by the World Bank in September, another issued by ANERA in the summer, and another soon to be published by Unicef — describe a major humanitarian crisis. They portray a fragmented society, fraught with massive unemployment, suffering from “acute and chronic malnutrition,” in levels normally associated with emergency situations in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a study published last August by the U.S. Agency for International Development. United Nations agencies estimate that more than 50% of the Palestinian population is under the poverty line, living on incomes of less than $2 a day. The U.N. Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that close to 2 million Palestinians, 62% of the population, are considered “vulnerable” because they have inadequate access to food, shelter or health services.
Official Israeli reports also describe a shattered Palestinian society in which the government, for all practical purposes, has collapsed. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv , quoting briefs by the Israeli government’s Coordinator of Activities in the West Bank and Gaza, reported last week on “harsh, heart-rending phenomena” in the West Bank and Gaza, “of an entire people that has lost its way, dangling with no way out, without hope.” Under economic pressure, violent crime is rampant, prostitution — a phenomenon that for many years was largely unknown in Palestinian society — is becoming commonplace, and law-enforcement authorities are simply absent, Ma’ariv reported.
Senior representatives of the P.A., seeking an end to suicide bombings, are scheduled to meet with Hamas leaders in Cairo this weekend, in a summit brokered by the chief of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman. The summit may also include other members of the armed opposition to Arafat, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Suleiman reportedly held preparatory talks with representatives of all these organizations.
The Egyptian initiative focuses on achieving a moratorium on suicide bombings, but Arafat reportedly is striving to obtain in addition a broader Palestinian consensus on minimum demands in future negotiations: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just resolution” to the problem of the refugees. Such an agreement could help him obtain a commitment from his opponents to a cease-fire, which would enable the implementation of the so-called “road map” to peace that the United States, U.N., European Union and Russia have proposed.
While the Egyptians try to broker a Palestinian commitment to a cease-fire, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair is planning to host a conference in London later this month to discuss reforms in the P.A. Reforms are the other step — in addition to a cessation of violence — that are required immediately from the Palestinians under the road map. Israel has already protested the Blair government’s decision to contact Arafat directly, asking him to send representatives to the talks.
Both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as international observers, are more than skeptical that the talks in Cairo and London will produce material results. One reason is the general skepticism regarding the intention of the United States and its allies of implementing the road map. “I don’t see any indication that this is anything more than a paper exercise,” Abington said of the road map, “and that’s the way the Palestinians see it, as well. I have never seen such low expectation among Palestinians of a U.S. administration’s policy toward the region.”