When history and facts don’t seem to matter: The Presbyterian Church, BDS, and the ‘largely non-violent First Intifada’

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a mainline protestant denomination that has been tied up in the politics of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel for more than a decade, culminating in a narrow four-vote majority in its 2014 General Assembly (GA) to divest church funds from HP, Motorola, and Caterpillar because of those company’s products being used to violent ends by Israel in the Palestinian territories. The GA tried to claim that its vote to divest was not about joining the BDS movement, but was a statement on socially responsible investment. This was wishful thinking as within 30 minutes of the GA’s vote, the New York Times immediately reported that the Church had been tied to the BDS Movement.

Two years later, the Presbyterian Church nears another General Assembly. This time, the BDS agenda is a bit more nuanced. A task force was commissioned in 2014 to examine the continued viability of the Church’s commitment to a Two State solution. Responsibility for this study fell on the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which recently issued a report titled Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Justice Peace, that it is seeking to have endorsed by the GA this summer in Portland, Oregon, when it meets in mid-June. It should surprise no one that the report that was written mimics many of the BDS arguments that have been used again and again.

It does not take even the casual reader long to realize that this report is fundamentally flawed and dishonest at its core. On the very first page, the report provides a brief history of the conflict, in which the First Intifada is described as a “largely non-violent movement that led to the Oslo Accords.” Let that sit in for a minute. The First Intifada was a non-violent movement?  What the authors of the report apparently are trying to do is to equate the Palestinian resistance, then led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO as being on the same moral level as the American civil rights movement, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference used the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience to effect change.   King led bus boycotts, sit-ins and marches to over-come legal segregation and accomplish voting rights for Black Americans in the American south.

Yet, the First Intifada included far more than boycotts of Israelis by Palestinians. Arafat’s uprising consisted of widespread throwing of stones, Molotov Cocktails, and assaults on Israeli citizens. It is estimated that over 1100 Palestinians and 200 Israelis were killed between 1987 and 1991. Yes, the First Intifada was far less violent than the Second, which began in September 2000, and was characterized by suicide bombings, and on going acts of terrorism, but in no way was the First Intifada a non-violent movement.   For a report by the Presbyterian Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to even use such language not only questions the intellectual integrity and honesty of the committee itself, but also calls into question the entire report that follows.   The Report treats the conflict between Israel and Palestine as entirely one sided, with Palestinians always the victim, seeking justice, and Israel as always the aggressor.

The ACSWP Report’s duplicity goes beyond this however. The report’s authors make blatant historical errors and distortions of facts that serves to push the Church to pursue an extremely narrow BDS agenda. The Church’s BDS supporters realize that their affiliation with BDS is one that most Presbyterians have little desire to be associated with, so it is not surprising that the report itself never uses the words BDS. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to avoid mention of the movement to delegitimize the Jewish state. While the words BDS never appear, the message is clear. The historic commitment to a Two State Solution is called into question, and the Report seeks to open the door to consideration of a One State Solution; a solution in which all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would gain Israeli citizenship. What they never say, of course, is that simple math would mean that Israel’s Jewish citizens would immediately become a minority in a Palestinian state. In some ways it is a confidence game, in which ACSWP and its allies seek to push the Church into opening the door for a One State Solution by approving a report that delegitimizes the State of Israel, without ever acknowledging it.

The reality is the conflict is far more complex, and both sides have acted in ways that have perpetuated it over time.   The description of the First Intifada is just one of many problems with the Report, but it illustrates the intellectual dishonesty that the Church’s BDS proponents are willing to engage in. Such a blatant effort to tie violent resistance to the American  civil rights movement is an insult to the faithful members of the Church who are truly interested in pursuing the difficult job of peacemaking.   Hopefully Presbyterian commissioners in Portland will see beyond the smoke and mirrors offered by the Church’s BDS advocates.

Hot off the Presses: The Fourth Amendment in Flux

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Very excited to have received an advance copy of my new book, The Fourth Amendment in Flux: The Roberts Court, Crime Control, and Digital Privacy just published by the University Press of Kansas.   UPK is one of the top publishers in political science, and seeing the book in print is very cool.      The book was the culmination of ten years of study of the Fourth Amendment, and two years of research trips to the Library of Congress.   The book should be available on Amazon on May 24th.

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Here is a basic description:

When the Founders penned the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, it was not difficult to identify the “persons, houses, papers, and effects” they meant to protect; nor was it hard to understand what “unreasonable searches and seizures” were. The Fourth Amendment was intended to stop the use of general warrants and writs of assistance and applied primarily to protect the home. Flash forward to a time of digital devices, automobiles, the war on drugs, and a Supreme Court dominated by several decades of the jurisprudence of crime control, and the legal meaning of everything from “effects” to “seizures” has dramatically changed. Michael C. Gizzi and R. Craig Curtis make sense of these changes in The Fourth Amendment in Flux. The book traces the development and application of search and seizure law and jurisprudence over time, with particular emphasis on decisions of the Roberts Court. IMG_4537

Cell phones, GPS tracking devices, drones, wiretaps, the Patriot Act, constantly changing technology, and a political culture that emphasizes crime control create new challenges for Fourth Amendment interpretation and jurisprudence. This work exposes the tensions caused by attempts to apply pretechnological legal doctrine to modern problems of digital privacy. In their analysis of the Roberts Court’s relevant decisions, Gizzi and Curtis document the different approaches to the law that have been applied by the justices since the Obama nominees took their seats on the court. Their account, combining law, political science, and history, provides insight into the courts small group dynamics, and traces changes regarding search and seizure law in the opinions of one of its longest serving members, Justice Antonin Scalia.

“A significant contribution to the literature on Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that is written clearly and concisely. It should be read by legal scholars and students, and anyone with an interest in how law enforcement interests collide with the privacy rights of citizens.”

—Craig Hemmens, Chair and Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Washington State University

The Fourth Amendment in Fluxis an excellent book for political science, pre-law and criminal justice students.”

—Michael Palmiotto, Professor of Criminal Justice, Wichita State University

At a time when issues of privacy are increasingly complicated by technological advances, this overview and analysis of Fourth Amendment law is especially welcome—an invaluable resource as we address the enduring question of how to balance freedom against security in the context of the challenges of the twenty-first century.

van Gogh’s “The Hospital at St. Remy”

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For your Monday enjoyment. This is Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Hospital at St. Remy” (sometimes called Trees in the Garden of the Hospital at St. Remy). It is part of the collection of the Hammer Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles, on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago.

IMG_0032It was painted in October 1889, when van Gogh was undergoing treatment for his mental illness at the Saint Paul Asylum in he Saint-Remy-De-Provence, 12 miles northeast of Arles, in the south of France. van Gogh described the trees in the garden, with the asylum facade behind them it in a letter to his brother Theo:

“I also have two views of the park and the asylum in which this place appears most agreeable. I tried to reconstruct the thing as it may have been by simplifying and accentuating the proud, unchanging nature of the pines, and the cedar bushes against the blue.”

October 8, 1889, Letters, p. 810. The painting is roughly 36×28 inches in size. It was featured as the centerpiece of the final display at the van Gogh: Bedrooms exhibition in Chicago.

It has become one of my favorite paintings of Vincent van Gogh. Enjoy.

Book Review: In the Clearing

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I received an advance copy of Robert Dugoni’s forthcoming third novel in the Tracy Crosswhite series, In the Clearing.   I’ve read all three of the books, all prior to publication, and think that the third entry is a considerable improvement over the second novel,  Her Final Breath which left me disappointed, and felt like it did little to advance the development of the recurring characters.    This novel is more similar to the introduction to the series, My Sister’s Grave as Detective Crosswhite investigates a cold-case murder (which had been viewed as a suicide) that had some minor similarities to the detective’s own personal story, namely the murder of her own sister.

 

In the Clearing is a quick read. 51tCw4-LuyL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_ It has a great start, and hooks the reader in.  The premise is that a friend of  Tracy Crosswhite, a sheriff in a fictional Washington town three hours from Seattle, wants to re-open a case that her father, the now deceased former sheriff had investigated 40 years earlier.  A teenage Native American girl was found dead in a river, and it was attributed as a suicide.  The then young deputy sheriff investigated the case on his own, but never was able to prove the case.   Tracy is brought in to re-examine the case.

My criticism of the book is that there were times when it was very confusing, as the book would go from Tracy Crosswhite investigating a current murder case in Seattle, to flashbacks from 1976 of the Sheriff Deputy, to contemporary investigation of the cold-case.   It jumped around that way, and required a lot of focus on the part of the reader.   But this is a minor criticism.   In the end, the story has a clear resolution, and was an enjoyable read.    I’d recommend it, but I’d say start with the bestseller My Sister’s Grave, if you haven’t read the series before.  There is a LOT of references to both prior novels.

In the Clearing is available on May 17.    I reviewed this for Netgalley.com.   

 

 

Review: The Last One

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I occasionally review books for NetGalley.com, a service that provides pre-publication books for review purposes.  I recently received a copy of Alexandra Oliva’s forthcoming debut novel, The Last One,  due out by Random House this July.  The description of The Last One was intriguing:

For readers of Station Eleven and The Passage comes a dazzling and unsettling novel of psychological suspense. In Alexandra Oliva’s thrilling fiction debut, survival is the name of the game, as the line blurs between reality TV and reality itself—and one woman’s mind and body are pushed to the limit.

So I requested the book, and my request was approved.   I’ve been a fan of Survivor since the show began 15 years ago.  I have read Station Eleven, and the Passage, and a wide range of post-world-comes-to-and-end-as-we-know-it books, and thought the concept was  worth giving it a read.  Imagine you are a contestant on a reality show, not on some island in the Pacific, but somewhere in a forested part of the U.S., and on your own to survive in the wild.  BUT while you are playing “the game,” a super-flu or some other sort of contagion strikes.   Since the game’s producers are constantly throwing obstacles and challenges at you, would you think it was a part of the game, or real.

This is the premise of The Last One.   As a Survivor fan, I loved the game description, and the confessionals, and the real sense of what it would be like to be in “a game.”  As a fan of the post-apocalyptic books, it provided a totally different spin.  The book goes back and forth from telling the story of the game, in one chapter, to focusing on the experiences of the one woman “Zoo” (named that by the show’s producers because she worked with wildlife), “post-game.”  Yet, she doesn’t realize she isn’t in a game anymore.

The back-and-forth is sometimes frustrating.  I really wanted more of Zoo’s story, but the writing was strong, and it was the type of book you fly through.  I also occasionally thought, “come on, you have to realize this isn’t a game anymore.”  I was about 80 percent through the book (remember, I have a pre-publication copy, sent on kindle, and no page numbers) and thought the author is  never going to resolve this satisfactorily.  I was completely wrong.   It was a fun book, and will be a great summer beach or pool read, once it comes out in July.    I look forward to more from Alexandra Oliva.

Powerful words from Bassem Eid

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I came across this blog post from last year from my friend the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator, Bassem Eid, .   Powerful words that capture a lot about the role the Palestinians can and should play in building a better future.  This does not exonerate the Israelis, but makes it clear that the problems are not one sided.

 

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/we-palestinians-hold-the-key-to-a-better-future

 

I am a proud Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp and raised a large family. I want peace and prosperity for my people. I want an end to the misery and the destruction.

After 66 years of mistakes and missed opportunities, it is time for us Palestinians to create the conditions for peace and to work for a better future. It is time that we stopped pretending that we can destroy Israel or drive the Jews into the sea. It is time that we stopped listening to Muslim radicals or Arab regimes that use us to continue a pointless, destructive, and immoral war with Israel.

Let’s be realistic. We Palestinians are not doing well.

In Gaza, our schools are controlled by Muslim fanatics who indoctrinate our children, and Hamas uses our civilians as human shields in a losing battle against Israel. Hamas maintains power through violence, and it ensures that money is spent on its arsenal rather than on making the Palestinians’ lives better. While President Abbas is quick to denounce Israel whenever it attacks Hamas, he has absolutely no ability to stop Hamas from provoking Israel.

In the West Bank, while Abbas has been incapable of stopping the construction of Israeli settlements, the only good jobs are with Israeli companies, and the BDS (Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment) movement is doing its best to take those jobs away from us. Abbas runs a corrupt dictatorship that uses international funds to consolidate its own administration rather than to develop the Palestinian economy.

In East Jerusalem, the PA is so mistrusted that most Palestinians would prefer to live under Israeli rule than under PA rule, and yet some of us seem unable to live in peace with the Jews.

 

When the Church distorts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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A recent study report  by the PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) demonstrates its one-sided, distortions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, it is exactly what I expected from ACSWP.  The report was commissioned by the 221st General Assembly to study the commitment to the Two State Solution.  I’ll say that the report is less inflammatory than I actually expected, and it treads lightly about being affiliated with the BDS Movement, but the reality is the report will provide commissioners to the General Assembly this summer with a very one-sided view of the conflict.  
A report was released today by NGO Monitor, by a Israeli watch-dog organization, and highlights the biases in the study, and illustrates how one-sided their focus was.
The almost-exclusive reliance on sources that are, in many cases, openly hostile to Israel and present highly distorted analyses resulted in a one-sided distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to promoting BDS, the document downplays the threat of terrorism directed against Israeli civilians, while blaming Israel for Palestinian terror attacks and the hostility of neighboring states. Moreover, it views the conflict solely through the prism of ostensible Israeli strength and Palestinian weakness. This narrative patronizes Palestinians by absolving them of responsibility for their own actions and presents a sympathetic view of Palestinian violence.
Look, I understand that everyone approaches this issue from a particular view point (and even NGO Monitor has its own lens and biases).   But my experience in the past several years of being focused on these issues is that when one puts on a narrow lens, and fails to even acknowledge the counter-narratives (there are more than two) in this complex area, then a huge dis-service is done.   This is even more problematic given the emphasis that social justice policy towards Israel and Palestine plays in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Our commissioners are generalists, not public policy experts, and they are asked to vote on hundreds of different issues over a week long assembly, setting the church’s agenda for the next two years or more.  When the advisory bodies of the denomination itself are co-opted and so biased in their views, then everyone loses.    The very naming of individuals to the study group was stacked to promote a specific viewpoint or narrative, and as a result, the  report did just what one would expect.
Just as the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” and its highly inflammatory “study guide” Zionism Unsettled is a front for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, this report should be viewed in the same light.  It presented a highly distorted view of exceedingly complex issues.  For Presbyterians, it is neither decent nor orderly.   These are issues that I take very seriously, and issues which I have dedicated a huge amount of time studying, exploring both sides of the issues.   Neither peace-making nor conflict resolution is served by such approaches.
Think of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a puzzle – like a Rubik’s Cube.  The puzzle can be solved, but it takes a lot of work, and effort.   The ACSWP/IPMN approach is to tear the stickers off the cube, and put them back again, and say “look I have the answer!”   In doing so, we all lose.

An Israeli perspective on the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Starting to Make Sense of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire

When I was in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to listen to Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute (Israel’s equivalent of the Brookings Institution) give a hour-long dinner talk about the state of affairs in Israel today.  Yossi did a remarkable job providing an overview of the development of issues today by putting them into the context of the political developments of the last 30 years.    Many of the things he said appeared this Saturday in a compelling essay in the Wall Street Journal.

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Yossi began his talk by exploring the question of why is it that nobody in Israel really wants to talk about the current wave of violence. And why “everyone is just pretending this is normal time.” His response was intriguing. “One reason is when I don’t have to talk about it, I don’t.  Our coping mechanism is to pretend we live in a normal place and can live normal lives.”

I found that interesting, as in many ways I thought there was a disconnect between the culture I was experiencing, traveling throughout Israel, and the elephant in the room — the low level terror wave that has continued without stop for even a week, in the past five months.  I remember walking down Jaffa Street at night thinking this, or sitting at an outdoor café in Tel Aviv, and thinking, there is this rich culture here, and this strange sense of normality, yet, at any time, really bad things can happen.  Now, to be fair, one can say that about my favorite American city Chicago, too.  Chicago is experiencing a terrible homicide wave right now.  But it doesn’t stop people from continuing with their lives.  The difference, however, is that the murders in Chicago are contained to specific neighborhoods, and in Israel it is far more complex.

Yossi continued by arguing that “we are experts in containing a pretense of a daily life. And it gets us through a situation in which we have been, in one way or another, at war, since the day this country was created.     Three months after the Egypt peace treaty, we were at war in Lebanon.  We shift from border to border from conflict to conflict.”    But he thought there was a deeper reason, for the unwillingness to address it today.  “as a society, we have exhausted our political options.”  To explain this, he provided us with a succinct, yet extremely persuasive overview of the evolution of  Israeli politics since the 1980s.   What follows is my summary of what his lesson in Israeli political history.  All errors are my own.

The 1980s was the decade of unlimited settlement building.  It was the era of the quest for “Greater Israel.”  The era of Menachim Begin.  This was where the “vitality and energy of the Israeli people was focused.  Israel was going to settle the territories won in the 1967 war, the land known as Judea and Samaria – the ancient home of the Jews.   This seemed acceptable because the 1967 war was a defensive one.”  After 1967,

we find ourself in possession of the biblical heartland of the Jewish people, the heart of our story.  These lands,are very small.  Greater Israel is the size of New Jersey.  Without Judea and Samaria, its the size of Rhode Island.  We are really looking at a territory that is geographically intimate, unbearably intimate, in which Israel has profound religious, historical, and security interests.   So in the 1980s it seemed like a fairly inevitable idea, that this is what we were going to do.  No country in our place would have given up this territory, To this day I am convinced of it. Given the threats we face, and the lands we won in a war we didn’t seek, I don’t believe any country in our place would have done any differently.

Things change with the coming of the First intifada which began in Gaza in 1987 and spread to the West Bank.  (Intifada actually means “uprising” in Arabic).   An uprising in which people threw rocks and molotov cocktails.  Israel had control over the entirety of the territories at that time, so the violence was limited in that sense.

But what the First intifada did was make Israelis realize the cost of occupation.  To build Greater Israel meant to occupy another society, and to marginalize another people.  Israelis learned that their quest for Greater Israel was not cost free.  By the end of the first intifada, for many, the dream of Greater Israel was gone, and it was replaced by the era of what he called the “guilty Israeli.”  Many Israelis who had initially supported the settlements came to believe we had pushed the Palestinians into a situation where they had no alternatives.  There was a political awakening by some, but not all Israelis, that there was a counter-security rationale to holding onto the territories, and it ultimately resulted in the 1992 election of Yitzhak Rabin.  He came to office with the slogan “Let’s take Gaza out of Tel Aviv  and Tel Aviv out of Gaza.”  It was the beginning of the push to withdraw from Gaza, and hopefully, the West Bank. The 1990s became the decade of “Peace Now.”

The 1990s was also the time when Israel learned a painful lesson that remains to this day.  The Israelis sought peace, but they had been tricked by Arafat.   Arafat and Rabin together came to sign the Oslo Peace Accords, which paved the way for the Palestinian authority, and the first step towards a two state solution.    But Arafat had played a trick.

“He spoke peace when he went on CNN, but spoke jihad to his own people, when he spoke in Arabic… and no one was listening.  it became clear to me that it was a one way peace process, in which Israel would give up territory, it did not get peace in return.  Instead we experienced more terrorism than at any time in our history.

The decade of Peace Now, gave way to the second intifada.  Arafat returned to Palestine out of exile in Tunisia, and brought with him tens of thousands of PLO soldiers.  “They were at our doorsteps.  It all came to a head in September 2000, at the end of the Oslo agreement.”  Oslo was supposed to be a 7 year process.  Bill Clinton, at the end of his presidency, sought to prevent the beginning of widespread violence that the Palestinian national movement was on the verge of, and proposed splitting Jerusalem, with the Palestinians getting the temple mount, and Israel would get the Western Wall.  More importantly, land swaps would increase so that Palestine would get 96 percent of the original Green Line.  “The Palestinians would have to make one concession — limiting the right of refugees to return to their original lands.  The Israelis accepted the deal.  Arafat walked away from the table, and what followed was four years of the worst terrorism experienced in the nation’s short history.”

The second intifada effectively ended the era of the “guilty Israeli.”  Sympathy for Palestinians and their plight largely went away, and was relegated to the pages of the leftist newspaper Haaretz.  Israeli guilt over the occupation was wiped away by 4 years of terrorism.

What we learned in the second intifada, is that no amount of Israeli concessions, except for Israeli agreement to commit suicide by opening the border to allow hundreds of thousands if not several millions of refugees from 1948 into the Jewish state, which would mean we would lose the one place on the planet where the Jewish people is a majority which is the goal of the Palestinian national movement. The price for peace is my agreement to commit suicide.

Yet, exhausted by the second intifada, the closing act of the “Peace now” period was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005, to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, pulling out of the settlements there, and setting it loose.   The 2000s had become the decade of unilateral disengagement. The end result of that was a complete disaster, with rockets raining down on Southern Israel and Hamas seizing control of the Gaza strip.   After the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas soundly defeated the Fatah (the political party of the P.L.O.) and gained control of Gaza. Hamas is designated as a U.S. State Department designated terrorist organization, and its very charter is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza left a sour taste in the mouth of most Israelis, and led to the periodic cycle of violence and conflicts between Gaza and Israel, the most recent of which was the 2014 summer war.  Each cycle has made the two state solution of the Oslo accords harder and hard to accomplish, and has pushed many Israelis to simply accept the status quo, in spite of desperately wanting to see a close to a 50 year period of occupation end.  And in many ways, it enabled the right-wing Likud coalition under Bibi Netanyahu to govern for the past eight years, and propelled by the far right, to continue expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

This left Israelis with the status quo, where the devil you know (Fatah in Ramallah, Hamas mostly contained in Gaza) was better than the unknown.  But while the status quo might be the lesser of two evils, it was not without its own problems.  “

An indefinite occupation would make Israel more and more of a ‘pariah’ and we would find ourselves in more and more complicated and often unbearable moral dilemmas as occupiers, and find ourselves increasingly alone.”   BUT If Israel were to disengage from the West Bank, the assumption is that in a month, or year, or five years, it would not be Mahmoud Abbas in charge, it would be Hamas…  The second threat is we will create a Palestinian state, but the rockets will fall on Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion.  Just as when we withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  For me a Palestinian state is an existential threat if it doesn’t happen, and it is an existential threat if it does happen.

And now the status quo itself is becoming untenable, with stabbing and terrorist attacks continuing for five months, and more and more questions being raised about the stability of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah government, and the future of the Palestinian Authority itself.  Add to that, much greater threats in the region, with ISIS in the Sinai and hovering near the Golan Heights in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The fact that the status quo is becoming untenable, is forcing the issue, making this a very important time.  If the 1980s were the period of Greater Israel, the90s represented Peace Now, and the 2000s focused on unilateral disengagement, it is unclear what this decade, will ultimately be described by.  Time will tell.

Yossi’s Wall Street Journal article suggests that the problem of ISIS and Iran have the potential to bring together a gulf state alignment, but that does not provide an answer to the conflict.  Other Israelis, like Zionist Union and Labor leader Isaac Herzog are arguing for total separation from the Palestinians, as an emergency measure.    My own take (not necessarily Yossi’s) is that efforts at democratization and ways to build a more robust economy in Palestine are the most important thing that can be done.  Economic prosperity can help support a Democratic Palestine.  The current Arab world offers few models for that, but the Israeli democracy could.

 

Rawabi – the Palestinian City of the Future

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One of the key obstacles to implementing a two state solution is ensuring that once a sovereign state, Palestine has a robust enough economy to develop democratic institutions and traditions.  Economic development and cooperation between Israel and Palestine is essential to the eventual resolution of the conflict.   Proponents of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement seek to focus their energies on an economic boycott of Israel, and an economic boycott of products produced in any Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  All divestment does is result in hurting Palestinians, and weakening the economy. Divestment does not really impact Israel’s robust economy, but when pressure is put on companies like Sodastream, who operated a plant in the West Bank, and they simply re-locate to another plant in Israel’s south, Palestinian workers lose jobs.

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Rawabi’s entertainment area – an 8,000 seat amphitheater looking up at the city

Positive investment in the Palestinian economy is a far better approach to long-term conflict-resolution.  Positive investment will result in more jobs, and better chances of prosperity – and less likelihood of militancy by young Palestinians. Investment in the economy is not “normalizing” the occupation, it is creating the conditions necessary for a future democratic Palestine.  I recently had the opportunity to visit one of the most unique and impressive efforts at building a future Palestine, in the hills north of Ramallah, at a place called Rawabi (arabic for “the Hills”).

Rawabi is a new city being built on 1500 acres (6 million square meters) of land.  It is the first new city to be built in Palestine since the  1967 war.  Rawabi isn’t a subdivision.  It is an intentional, planned city, with all of the things that are needed to make it a self-sufficient economy.  Think of the old computer game SimCity, where you design an entire city from scratch, and you have Rawabi.  It is in effect, SimCity Palestine.  Currently 20 percent of the 1500 acres are being developed, with 18 neighborhoods intended to provide 5,000 residences.  Rawabi is the brain-child of Palestinian American entrepreneur Bashar Al-Masri, who is the principal investor and owner in the project.   His corporation provided 1/3 of the funding, with additional financial support from the Qatar Investment Authority, and other private investors.

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The city includes a municipal office, schools, commercial center, industrial center, mosque, church, transportation system, clinic, and entertainment areas.  The core area, once complete will house about 25,000 people, and can expand to as many as 40,000 people.  The project began in 2007, ground was broke in 2012, and in August 2015, the first residents moved in.   Right now it is small, only 600 people live in the city, but the goal is to occupy another 250 apartments every six months, until it reaches 6,000 people in five years.   The project has injected $1.2B USD into the Palestinian economy, and the employment of 5,000 with another 2,000 contractors, has resulted in a 4 percent reduction in unemployment in the entire West Bank. The stones for the buildings come from the quarry on-site, and workers at the city’s industrial park cuts the stone, and produces the cement for the project.

Rawabi’s commercial center, under construction

a model of Rawabi

a model of Rawabi

What makes Rawabi unique is that not only does it have modern facilities, but apartments sell for as little as $65,000 USD for a 2 bedroom, 1000 sq. foot furtnished apartment.  Larger, 3, 4, and 5 bedroom apartments are in the $100-200K price range.  The prices are about 30 percent cheaper than in Ramallah, and in an effort to attract young people, a rent-to-own program permits residents to have two years of rent go entirely towards a down-payment on a home. Even the development of mortgage programs was a challenge, as the Palestinian Authority did not have a traditional mortgage system.

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Rawabi is not intended as just a bedroom community for Ramallah or Nablus.  Instead, the plan is to develop a robust commercial area, in which people will work and shop and live.  The commercial area, which is still under construction, will include two restaurants, a “fun factory” for kids, a night club, a 7 screen cineplex, grocery store, bank, and two high rises with 50,000 sq. meters of office space.  In addition, there is an 8,000 seat outdoor amphitheater for concerts and entertainment.  More importantly, Rawabi is intentionally trying to create long-term sustainable jobs, by focusing on Information Technology, and creating a business incubator for young entrepreneurs.  The goal is not to displace jobs from Ramallah, or elsewhere in the West Bank, but to create new jobs, and add to the economy.

show-room

show-room

Rawabi has been slowed down in its development due to the politics of the West Bank, with obstructions from both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.  The Palestinian Authority made a commitment to provide Rawabi with much of the public service infrastructure, schools, fire, police, roads, water treatment..   The commitment never materialized, and the developers had to take it on themselves, adding another $120M to the project budget.   The Israelis refused to allow Rawabi access to the Israeli water grid, this prevented many of the apartments from being occupied for as many as two years.  An agreement was finally reached, although water issues remain an issue for the future.   In addition, because Rawabi’s land crossed both Area C (under Israeli control) and Area A (Palestinian control), there have been tie-ups about the development of the main access road to the city.  These issues also remain a challenge.

 

the amphitheater

In spite of the challenges, Rawabi’s developers have worked with Israeli businesses – partnering with more than 600 firms in the building of the city, but also working hard to grow Palestinian business. For example, the company invested in a small carpentry workshop (a family owned business in Ramallah that used to produce one kitchen every three months) and gave it a $600,000 order.  The project’s general manager Amir Dajani said “you have the talent, you need support.  We stepped in, gave them money, hired a warehouse brought in a quality manager, a financial manager, a general manager, gave the continuous orders, brought the raw materials up front. And they became a $3 million dollar business. Now, we are exiting from them after 5 years, selling our interest back to them.”  A similar investment was made in a struggling natural gas firm in Nablus.

General Manager Amir Dajani

General Manager Amir Dajani

BDS advocates have criticized Rawabi, claiming it is merely “normalizing” relations with Israeli, by its developers partnering with Israeli companies. Rawabi’s general manager had this to say:

“I’m in the business of economics.  I am trying to create jobs.  My bread and butter is job creation.  But I always like to focus on the fact that we are building for the future.  We have to overcome different political argument about what is good.   Some people see this as normalization.  You are normalizing with the Israelis, and therefore you are a traitor….

We argue as a real estate developer, as a developer with a vision, that cross-border cooperation is a force for peace. Therefore  we continue to advance our agenda, we continue to foster our relationships across the border, we continue to build bridges of hope and cooperation for peace…

We are very realistic, and believe we are building a prospective economy for the future, with a  huge focus for the young generation, with sustainable jobs.”

Rawabi is far from complete, and its ultimate end-state remains to be seen, but it is a model for Palestinian economic prosperity that should not be over-looked, and those who argue that divestment is the path to peace are completely missing the boat.  The slogan of Rawabi is “the best is yet to come,” and from what I saw when visiting it, I am convinced it offers a model for a new Palestine.   Its construction alone has injected a huge amount of money into the economy, and provided 7,000 jobs.  It has resulted in a 4 percent drop in unemployment in the entire West Bank.  Absorb that for a minute.

When the commercial zone and business incubator are functional, it will continue to provide income and jobs.  And that is essential to any two state solution.

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