RAMALLAH, West Bank — While the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its international donors move forward with plans to build industrial parks in the West Bank, critics say the projects undermine real economic development and dangerously cement Israel’s control over Palestinian lives.
The idea of establishing industrial zones in the occupied Palestinian territories took off shortly after the creation of the PA itself in the early 1990s. Today, there are three Palestinian industrial zones under construction in the occupied West Bank near Bethlehem, Jericho and Jenin.
These zones are financed by French, Japanese, Turkish and German donors, and are part of the “economic peace” model of development, which argues that improving Palestinians’ economic well-being will create the necessary conditions to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
“The national goal is to enhance the Palestinian economy and support Palestinian people through the creation of job opportunities and raising economic independence. With one word, it’s to create the future. It’s a big dream,” said Nedal al-Jabari, marketing director at the Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zone Authority (PIEFZA), the PA-affiliated body that oversees the parks.
From his Ramallah office, Jabari told Al-Monitor that the industrial parks would create 20,000 direct and at least 10,000 indirect jobs for Palestinians in the West Bank and help boost the struggling Palestinian economy.
PIEFZA works to bring outside development companies to operate inside the parks, and helps build off-site infrastructure with the help of foreign donors. Jabari stressed that the parks aim to entice Palestinian and foreign investments in the West Bank, and are largely export-oriented.
Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and workers inside the West Bank and on exports abroad are the main obstacle to the parks’ development, he said, adding, “We have two choices here. The first choice is to sit down and cry. The second choice is doing our best in the current situation.”
Since its inception, the PA — along with the Israeli government and international donors — has pushed the idea of “economic peace,” and the industrial parks fit into this development model.
Most recently, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Jordan in late May, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged international investments in Palestine to that aim.
"Israel has prevented us from exploiting our lands and natural resources, however, Palestine has promising opportunities and vast horizons in the fields of tourism, agriculture, industry, information technology, power generation, petroleum, natural gas, potassium and other fields," Abbas said.
Also at the WEF, US Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled a $4 billion economic package to the Palestinian Authority. This US investment would increase the Palestinian GDP by as much as 50% in three years, create jobs, and increase wages, while boosting the tourism and agricultural sectors, Kerry said.
“I am happy to say that both [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Abbas support this initiative, knowing that just as people find the dignity in a good job, a nation finds pride by functioning and growing an economy that can stand on its own two feet. This will help build the future,” he said.
Still, for many, the industrial zones — and the “economic peace” model altogether — create an illusion of development in Palestine, and devastatingly reinforce the Israeli occupation.
“The whole economic peace idea … is to provide economic solutions to political problems,” said Alaa Tartir, program director at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network, and author of a study on the Japanese-funded Agro-Industrial Park in Jericho.
“Historical evidence suggests, and actual facts on the ground suggest, that such a model, while it could achieve very short-term successes, is very distorting at the long-term level. It helps in distorting Palestinian life and economy and normalizes the occupation, rather than end the occupation,” Tartir said.
He told Al-Monitor that while Palestinians need industrial zones to build a solid economic foundation and base of production, the current framework is “inherently problematic”; the parks are driven by international donors’ agendas, there is a lack of Palestinian ownership and accountability, and Israel, as the occupying power, maintains control over all aspects of production and exports.
“[The parks were] not built to challenge the occupation or colonization, but to impose an economic peace between colonized and colonizers. This reality cannot be masked by talking about profits, economic efficiencies, and other technical jargon,” Tartir said.
An exclusive report published by The Electronic Intifada (EI) in September 2012 revealed an even more problematic aspect of the industrial parks; in a contract obtained by EI, the PA seemingly agreed to grant full control over the industrial zone in Jenin to a Turkish company.
“The [PA] recognizes the inviolability of the Zone and its internal security, which will be under the sole control of the [development company]. No official or agent of the PA or other person exercising any public, municipal, judicial, administrative, executive or legislative authority shall enter the zone to perform any duty therein except PIEFZA employee [sic] … and other officials whose work is necessary for the smooth operation of the zone,” the report stated.
While PIEFZA’s Jabari dened this allegation — telling Al-Monitor that companies working in the industrial zones do not have “absolute authority” and “will work under Palestinian law” — not everyone is convinced.
Itiraf Remawi, Program Director at the Ramallah-based Bisan Center for Research and Development, said the authority granted to foreign companies is extremely worrisome, and means that there are no guarantees that Palestinians will be employed in the industrial zones, nor are there any safeguards for how workers are treated therein.
The parks will also cause irreversible damage to the natural environment, and squander Palestine’s most important, and threatened, resource: fertile, agricultural land. As such, local Palestinian farmers have strongly opposed the zone in Jenin, Remawi said.
“If we want to build a self-reliance model and be productive, its characteristic [must] be built on agriculture. We are an agricultural community,” said Remawi, adding that producing goods for local consumption, and supporting the work of smaller-scale Palestinian farmers, is critical.
“They need to think out of the box of [the] Oslo [Accords]. We need a big debate in society to develop a better development plan for our future. I’m disappointed that the PA won’t change its approach,” Remawi said.
“This is the policy (that will) liberate Palestinians under occupation? No. Personal priorities and national priorities will be lost under this approach.”
Jillian Kestler-D'Amours is a Canadian journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. She is a regular contributor to Inter Press Service news agency, Al Jazeera English and Free Speech Radio News. On Twitter: @jilldamours