The Five-Star Occupation

Ramallah_features_575_2Naomi Zeveloff asks, “Is Ramallah’s economic boom a sign of progress or surrender?” in Guernica:

There is no simple explanation for Ramallah’s economic crescendo; Palestinian economists, businessmen, and commentators speculate that many factors are at play. First and foremost, Israel has eased restrictions on the movement of people and goods throughout the West Bank by lifting checkpoints and roadblocks. A pledged $7.4 billion uptick in foreign aid spurred the Palestinian government to spend on a series of ambitious infrastructure projects, helmed by the internationally popular Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Reforms in the Palestinian banking sector freed up capital for small business loans. And relative political calm encouraged private investment. The international press called the resulting phenomenon—a proliferation of luxury cars, condominiums, new businesses, pre-planned neighborhoods, and the creation of two new private equity funds—the “Ramallah boom.”

Both Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made Palestinian revival a major facet of their national plans, calling economic growth a prerequisite to Palestinian statehood. But the growth has yet to spread beyond Ramallah. Even in the city, the plan has only mixed support.

Some Palestinians see the boom as a perversion of the Palestinian independence movement, an indication that the government has given up its political program in favor of meaningless economic reforms. Forty-four years into the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a peace plan nowhere in sight, the Ramallah boom looks more like an attempt to placate a battle-worn Palestinian populace than to prepare for its independence. “It is a five-star occupation,” a skeptical Palestinian businessman named Sam Bahour told me. “It gives the impression to the outside world that everything is OK in Palestine.”

Others disagree. Palestine Investment Fund CEO Mohammad Mustafa sees the Ramallah boom as an example of Palestinian economic prowess under the constraints of the Israeli occupation. Since the Israeli government controls Palestinian borders, airspace, and water, Ramallah’s new façade is a taste of what the Palestinians might do if they could grow their economy unencumbered. “If the occupations goes away, we can do anything,” Mustafa said. “We can be like Dubai, like New York, like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, or like Istanbul.”