Quietly, Israel prepares itself for Palestinian independence

Published October 22nd, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Despite the cease-fire accord announced at the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting on Monday, October 16, violence in the Palestinian territories continues to rage. Against such a backdrop, the likelihood that the Palestinians and Israelis will reach a peaceful and mutual agreement about the Palestinian claim to statehood seems increasingly remote.  


What appears more likely is that, sooner more probably than later, the Palestinians will unilaterally declare independence, leaving details such as borders, land issues, refugees and political and economic status for later debate, most likely after the uprising has abated somewhat. 


This is an eventuality that even the Israeli establishment is slowly resigning itself to. How exactly the Israeli will react to a Palestinian declaration of independence is not clear, but the direction in which they are thinking may be indicated by Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s stated aim of physically separating Israel from the adjacent Palestinian entity. 


At this stage, it is more comfortable for the Israelis to talk about the type of border that will be created, as opposed to as to where it will be located. According to the Ha’aretz a team of experts, headed by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, has come up with the term “a border that breathes."  


What this means is border with six to eight border crossings through which goods, vehicles and people can pass. According to Ha’aretz, a border fence would only exist at certain points, and at other points there will be other physical and electronic obstacles. People crossing over will have to present identification that would be verified through computerized systems. 


But that essentially is the easy part. For while the Barak plan does talk of commercial, industrial and environmental cooperation, it does talk about a separation of services, including water and electricity. This is a particularly hard nut to crack at present. When it comes to electricity, for instance, the Palestinians lack an independent infrastructure and, in the near term at least, linking up to the Jordanian or Egyptian electricity grids is not really a viable option.  


Water is an even more contentious issue. One of major underground aquifers used by the Israelis is located beneath a large section of the West Bank. Indeed, since Israel came to occupy the area in 1967, the Palestinians have consistently complained that Israel was preventing them from tapping in to the resource, while using it extensively itself. 


But, where water is concerned, Israel is making other plans. Already on April 17, a ministerial committee, headed by Israeli Finance Minister Avraham Shohat, approved a recommendation of joint working groups from the ministries of finance, national infrastructures, agriculture and the environment, for setting up a seawater desalination plant.  


According to the recommendation, the desalination plant will produce 50 million cubic meters of water annually. It will most probably be built alongside a power station in southern coastal city of Ashkelon. Desalination is only one of several solutions to Israel’s water problem. Other alternatives include the more efficient use of existing resources, recycling, and importing water — with Turkey earmarked as the ideal source. 


On Thursday and Friday, October 19 and 20, several Israeli newspapers published “exclusive” conversations with Avi Ben-Bassat, the director-general of the Finance Ministry. The “privileged” information that Ben-Bassat so obviously was keen to reveal was the he was leading an inter-ministerial team that is studying the economic effects of separation. Included on the team were representatives of the ministries of finance, communication, industry and trade, agriculture, national infrastructure, and labor and welfare. 


Ben-Bassat pointed out that, in many ways separation is easier for Israel than for the Palestinians. The Palestinian economy, he said, relies on Israel for about 25 percent of its GDP. On the other hand, the Palestinians are responsible for less than one percent of the Israeli GDP. Ben-Bassat noted that Israel exports $2 billion worth of goods to the Palestinian territories each year. 


Ben-Bassat voiced his opposition to replacing Palestinian workers with foreign workers from other countries. With 8.5 percent of its workers unemployed, Israel should be able to make up by itself the Palestinian workers that may be lost to the Israeli labor force. 


But it may not even be initiatives taken at a governmental level that ultimately will lead to the split between the Palestinian and Israeli economies. In the private sectors of both nations it is becoming increasingly obvious that, even when the dust eventually settles, the events of the past several weeks have changed what happens from now on forth. 


Given the general level of animosity between Israelis and Palestinians is widely believed that the number Palestinians working in Israel will fall dramatically, from the amount of approximately 100,000 before the start of Intifadat Al-Aksa. Simply stated, many Palestinians will be afraid to travel to Israel and Israeli employees will be afraid to employ Palestinians. 


The fate of the joint Palestinian-Israeli-operated industrial zones also hangs in the balance. Two that currently are in operation lie adjacent to the Karni and Erez border crossings between Israel and Gaza Strip. By the end of the year, work on three more should have been underway — at Jenin and Tulkarem on the West Bank and Rafiah in Gaza. Another two or three were also on the drawing board. 


Just three weeks into the uprising and there already have been reports about companies closing up shop in the Gaza industrial zones. Personal safety is the most commonly voiced reason for considering pulling out of the industrial zones, but another reason is the threat of work stoppages brought on by the violence.  


But, speaking to the Jerusalem Post Dr. Abdel Malik Jaber, managing director of the Palestine Industrial Estate Development and Management Co. (PIEDCO), said that, in his opinion, the zones were not being killed off. "I know that it is a difficult time now, that there are serious problems, but I am confident that they can be overcome and that business will go back to normal," he said. Still acknowledge that it most probably will necessary to change existing strategies. “We have to understand the new realities on the ground," he said.  


Another individual who has not abandoned plans for economic cooperation is the Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, who has been pitching the idea for a new industrial zone in Rafah area with the Palestinian Authority.  


“I accept the fact that it will be difficult to implement the project,” Wertheimer said, speaking to the Globes financial daily. “It is now clear to me, however, as it has been all along, that there is only one choice for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a peaceful way — the economy. Joint industrial zones will have to be developed, and the equation is that industry and employment lead to peace.” — (Albawaba-MEBG)

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