The Achilles heel of Intifadat al-Aksa

Published November 19th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Controlled by Israel both from around and within, Palestinians often term the Gaza Strip a prison. They could add that Israel is the warden. Here, as in all other parts of the Palestinian territories, Israel controls everything — from the phone system to electricity, from heating to the money that is used on the street. 

 

The Israel shekel, with bills bearing the blue and white of the Israeli flag, is the predominant currency in the Palestinian territories, infiltrated only occasionally by the US dollar or the Jordanian dinar. 

 

Israel sealed off all West Bank towns under Palestinian control Monday after four Israelis were killed by Palestinians. In so doing Israel issued a devastating blow to some 120,000 Palestinians who depend on the Jewish state for their livelihood. The United Nations estimates the blockade means $3.4 million each day that is not going into the territories. 

 

Palestinian exports are also all but halted, as 90 percent of them go into Israel. With Yasser Arafat International Airport in Gaza reserved only for passengers, and no real shipping port, the Palestinian territories are at Israel's commercial mercy. 

 

On Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced another blow: Israel will freeze transfers of funds to the Palestinian Authority, including sales taxes and customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority under autonomy accords.  

 

"This represents $650 million a year, or about 63 percent of the total revenue of the Palestinian Authority, excluding gifts," said Salem Ajluni, an economic specialist in Gaza with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Ajluni said the blow would be particularly tough on the 115,000 people on the Palestinian payroll. 

 

Israel has used the economic weapon before, in 1997 under Barak's right-wing predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, and it was bitterly resented. Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said Thursday that the move was an act of war, in the same way as "rockets, planes and tanks". 

 

But Israel could go much further if it wanted to. With the flick of a switch Israel could cut off electricity throughout the territories, interrupt all Palestinian lines of communication with the outside world and make mobile phones go silent. Or it could stop the flow of fuel — or even water.  

 

"None of these resources come from the Palestinian territories, with the exception of water," Ajluni said. But the premium water goes to the Jewish colonies. Most Palestinians survive on salty polluted water, which gradually erodes children's teeth. "And then, they could always cut off electricity to stop the pumps from working," Ajluni said. 

 

The Gaza Strip was on its way to having the territories' first power station, but work was suspended when the current round of violence broke out in late September. The Palestinian Authority buys nearly all its electricity from Israel, which can cut the current whenever it feels like it, as it has threatened to do over the past few days, citing overdue payment. 

 

"It's because we pay such a high price, 0.34 shekels (eight US cents) per kilowatt, a price even higher than for the Israelis, that their standard of living is 10 times greater than ours," charged Sala Abdel Shafi, director of the Palestine Trade Center. 

 

For fuel, the Palestinians cannot even rely on their Arab friends. "Israel has imposed Jordanian standards, which aren't the same as Egyptian gas," Shafi said. "And Jordan's comes from Iraq, where the international embargo blocks exports. We don't have any choice but to buy from Israel." — (AFP, Gaza City) 

 

By Guillaume Bonnet 

 

© Agence France Presse 2000

© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)

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