Open Zion

03.07.13

Qatar's Bad Bet In The West Bank

There's noting wrong, in principle, with liquid-gas-rich Arab Gulf states doing business in Palestine. And Qatar's development work in Gaza is much needed, though the effect of bolstering Hamas's international standing remains unwelcome. On the other side of the Palestinian schism, Qatar's doing work, too, funding a billion-dollar for-profit project to develop housing for some 10,000 families a few miles from Ramallah. Rawabi, meaning "the hill," would be Palestine's first planned city, but there're some lingering issues, detailed in a report last weekend from NBC News:

There are two main practical problems for the new town. All the water has to be piped in, and there is no obvious source. “We are in this project, putting facts on the ground, and things will have to follow,” is [the millionaire Palestinian behind the development Bashar] Al-Masri’s answer, hoping for a miracle.

And access. The only road to Rawabi passes through what is known as Area C: that part of the West Bank that is fully controlled by Israel, administratively and militarily. It is a narrow, winding road that the Palestinians can use only with an Israeli permit, which must be renewed each year. Al-Masri talks of a tunnel through the hills linking Rawabi with Ramallah, barely visible on the horizon. Will that ever happen? "Probably not,” he admits. “It’s a problem."

Water is, of course, a longstanding issue. That's because settlements get priority over Palestinian villages: the Palestinian Authority has complained that Israel allocates to each West Bank settler 70 times as much water as to each Palestinian, and last year a U.N. report blasted Israeli settlers' takeovers of dozens of natural springs in the West Bank. Ataret, the settlement just across the valley from Rawabi, no doubt gets all the water it needs.

Then there's the road. Access to the planned city was meant to run through Area C, a patchwork of land that encompasses about 60 percent of the West Bank and which remained under full Israeli military control after the Oslo Accords. After three long years, the road to Rawabi was approved by Israel last winter, but, as NBC reported, because it runs through Area C, renewable year-long permits will be required. This is hardly the kind of flexibility the massive development project will need to thrive.

There's an irony here: pro-Palestinian movements on the left, including the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel, have bashed Al-Masri for activities considered "normalization" with with Israel, and yet his project is set to fall victim to Israel's occupation. Both the water issue and Area C access are emblematic of an even larger issue: the way the occupation continues to hinder Palestine's economic development, despite Netanyahu's much ballyhooed "economic peace" program. One of most important things, according to the World Bank, holding back development? Lack of access to Area C (as with water, Israeli settlers manage just fine there). The water issue, too, has contributed to Palestinian fiscal woes: one of the reason's the Palestinian water authority—like the PA itself—is underwater, so to speak, is that it must purchase water instead of drawing on the West Bank's (limited) natural resources. 

The notion that a viable peace accord alleviating these problems will come down the pike before next year, when the first families are slated to move in (the project won't be fully completed for five to seven years), strikes me as highly unlikely, And worse yet, Naftali Bennett, the right-wing politician who has joined with surprise election star Yair Lapid to play kingmaker in Israel's coalition wrangling, doesn't want a deal at all, and in fact wants to annex most of Area C. I'm not much of a gambler, but Qatar's backing of this billion-dollar bet on the peace process looks to me like a bad one. Instead, Rawabi seems poised to stand as a huge and expensive monument to the ills of occupation.