Palestinian economy ‘under siege’, says PA minister

Friday 30/10/2015
Palestinian Economy Minister Abeer Odeh

Hebron - The Palestinian economy is reeling under constraints resulting from Israeli domination, wars on the Gaza Strip and violence in the West Bank, Palestinian Economy Minister Abeer Odeh said.

Odeh’s remarks, in a telephone interview with The Arab Weekly, come in the wake of violence that engulfed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip following what Palestin­ians saw as Israeli provocations at the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine.

Dozens of Palestinians and ten Israelis have been killed in the month-long unrest that raised fears over another Palestinian intifada.

“As long as there’s occupation, the Palestinian economy is bound to remain decrepit,” asserted Odeh, a minister in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is responsible for the West Bank and partially in Gaza.

“Unemployment in the Palestin­ian territories is one of the highest in the world, with an overall aver­age of 27% in the West Bank and Gaza, or more than 330,000 jobless Palestinians.”

In Gaza unemployment is esti­mated at 43% and youth unemploy­ment there is a staggering 60%, Odeh noted.

She explained that 85% of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million lives on social welfare provided by inter­national donors and channelled through the PA.

Independent figures obtained by The Arab Weekly from West Bank economists on condition of anonymity indicated that the PA is facing severe budgetary problems causing delinquent payments of salaries to civil servants.

The reason, according to the economists, is Israel withholding payment of customs revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. The payments are supposed to be repatriated to the Palestinians each month but Israel stopped doing so in January.

The levied customs represent 70% of the PA’s revenues. The rest comes from international dona­tions, including aid from oil-rich Gulf Arab states.

A World Bank report in Septem­ber cited critical figures for the Pal­estinian economy but the report’s general upbeat tone suggested that the Palestinian economic crunch can be overcome.

“The current (economic) decline could be reversed in an environ­ment where sustainable, private sector-led growth is fostered, cou­pled with a commitment of ongoing financial support from the interna­tional community,” the report said.

It said a “dynamic private sec­tor can generate the sustainable growth needed”.

But, it highlighted that “restric­tions put in place by the govern­ment of Israel continue to stand in the way of potential private investment”.

The World Bank concluded that “access to Gaza remains highly con­trolled, and much of Area C, which makes up 60% of the West Bank, is inaccessible to Palestinians”.

An Israeli siege of Gaza after Hamas violently took it over from the PA in 2007 swelled poverty to 38.8%, Odeh said. “Of this figure, 21.1% live in total poverty and this is an indication of an unprecedent­ed economic deterioration in Gaza.”

“Israeli practices and policies in the Palestinian territories are the main reason for the distortions and structural imbalances in the Palestinian economic infrastruc­ture since the occupation began in 1967,” the minister said.

In the context of the unequal relationship between the two sides, Israel made the West Bank and Gaza a source of cheap labour used in its market and transformed the Palestinian areas into a consumer market for Israeli products, Odeh said.

Meanwhile, she added, Israel “continued to impose restrictions on Palestinian economic activity, especially the industrial sector, and drained Palestinian financial resources through an arbitrary tax policy on individuals and busi­nesses”.

“There is no growth in the Palestinian economy, compared to previous years,” Odeh said. She did not disclose the growth rate. The World Bank, however, said Gaza’s economy contracted 15% following Israel’s war in July 2014 but that of the West Bank grew by 4.5%, driven primarily by new building construction.

“The reason for the weaknesses is that our economy is simply under siege,” Odeh explained.

She maintained that the PA had “no control on the border and there are restrictions on the export and import that would have a nega­tive impact on growth”. Of total Palestinian imports, Israel comes first with 80%, Odeh said, with the rest coming from Jordan, Turkey and China.

Exporting is difficult because of Israeli restrictions. “We don’t export from a state to another but have to go through a third country, which makes our products more expensive and less competitive on the international market,” she said.

Talaat Alawi, chief editor of Al-Safeer Al Iqtisadi, an independ­ent Palestinian economic monthly newspaper, said indicators show the Palestinian economy “going from bad to worse”.

“For a fact on the ground, Pales­tinians buy essential commodities at the same price paid by Israeli consumers, whose monthly wages are at least four times more than those earned by Palestinians,” he said.

Nael Mousa, an economics professor at An-Najah National Uni­versity in Nablus north of the West Bank, said the Palestinian economy evolved since the uprising in 2000.

“But its performance remains modest and below the required level because of the Israeli restric­tions and obstacles,” he said.