Rebellion in Ramallah?

Israel has managed to outsource the occupation—until now.

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest in The American Prospect:

Thousands of Palestinians take to the streets. In Hebron, demonstrators burn an effigy. In Tul Karm, Ramallah, and other cities, they block streets and set tires ablaze. Teens hurl stones. All of the West Bank’s bus, truck, and taxi drivers go on strike for a day. In Bethlehem, truckers park sideways, blocking streets. In Nablus, kindergarten teachers join the strike; elsewhere storekeepers shut their shops. Universities announce they, too, will strike.

These are updates from the West Bank over the past week. They sound as if taken from the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel 25 years ago. But the leader burned in effigy in Hebron was Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian government in Ramallah, rather than Israel, is the direct target of protest. Economic frustration sparked the fury. This sounds like a variation on revolts in other Arab states—except the Palestinian Authority isn’t an independent state. Set up as to provide short-term, limited autonomy until a peace agreement, it has become the lasting means by which Israel outsources its rule over Palestinians in occupied territory. Donor countries foot the budget; the PA provides local services. Israel’s current government acts as if the arrangement can last forever. The protests show how unstable it really is.

The immediate reason for anger was the PA government’s decision to increase fuel prices and the value-added tax on goods and services. The cost of filling a gas tank is, of course, a function of world markets. But in the Palestinian Authority, it’s also a result of the price that the Israeli government sets, including Israeli taxes. The 1994 Paris Protocol, which governs economic relations between Israel and the supposedly temporary Palestinian Authority, specifies that gasoline can’t be more than 15 percent cheaper in PA territory than in Israel. It also links the level of value-added tax in the PA to the Israeli rate—so when Israel hiked its rate this month, so did Fayyad’s government.

The protocol did leave a little wiggle room for smaller increases. But the PA is short on cash. Much of its budget comes from state donors—including the United States and European and Arab countries. The Education Ministry building in Ramallah has a sign saying it was donated by the Kingdom of Norway. If the PA’s operating budget were a building, it would also have a donation plaque at the door.

Read the full column here.


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