The Economist
September 10, 2009 - 12:00am

A COUPLE of brown sheep squeal and squirm as they are dragged into the backyard of the Alian family’s house in the Jalazun refugee camp, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah. A man slits their throats, spraying the wall with blood. Once the sheep are motionless, women silently start cutting the meat into neat portions to be distributed to the camp’s poorest families in honour of the family’s “martyr”, 15-year-old Muhammad, who was recently killed by Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli army says he was throwing a Molotov cocktail at Jews in a settlement called Beit El, on a hilltop just outside the camp. A Palestinian human-rights group says the boy bled for an hour before Israeli soldiers let him have medical attention. The army denies the charge.

In past years a boy’s death during the Muslims’ holy fasting month of Ramadan, which began last month, would have unleashed riots in the Palestinian territories, but this time the reaction was muted. Palestinian policemen with semi-automatic rifles and baseball bats were posted on street corners throughout the camp after the killing, not to squash anti-Israeli demonstrations but to quell a lethal feud between two local families.

These tough-looking young policemen, trained in Jericho and Jordan under the aegis of an American security co-ordinator for the Palestinian territories, General Keith Dayton, have brought a modicum of calm and safety to Palestinian streets—to the benefit of Israelis too. Only a handful of suicide attacks have been carried out in Israel since 2005.

By clamping down on crime and guerrilla violence in the West Bank, the Palestinian security forces have enabled Israel’s forces to pull back from most of the Palestinian cities. Israelis say their own security barrier, biting into the West Bank, has helped keep miscreants out. Moreover, Hamas, the Islamist movement that carried out most of the suicide attacks, has, with the odd exception, desisted for several years. Israelis are less afraid to frequent restaurants and markets.

Violence still erupts occasionally. Israeli forces have killed 16 Palestinians in the West Bank so far this year, against 42 last year, says B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group. But many of the checkpoints choking movement and trade in the Palestinian territory have been removed. For the first time in several years, a sense of cautious hope is spreading.

In June the World Bank issued a perkier-than-usual report on the Palestinian economy, predicting that it would grow this year by 5%. In the Ramallah area, buildings are going up fast; new malls and shopping centres have opened. Since May the Israeli government has let Israeli Arabs visit West Bank cities, where they can buy things more cheaply, and this can help boost the economy.

These improvements in the daily lives of West Bankers have bolstered the ruling Fatah party. A recent poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research reckons it would get 44% of the vote to 28% for Hamas, its Islamist rival, which runs the Gaza Strip, if elections were held today. Partly because of a long-awaited Fatah congress last month in Bethlehem, where a younger leadership emerged, Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, who presides over the Palestinian Authority (PA) that runs the West Bank, has become more popular.

The prime minister, Salam Fayyad, an American-educated reformer who previously worked for the World Bank and the IMF, is praised for much of the progress. He recently unveiled a plan to boost growth and set up a de facto Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in two years, with or without Israel’s consent. He wants, among other plans, to build an international airport in the Jordan valley, an oil refinery and rail links to neighbouring countries.

The PA’s ability to build a proper state still depends on Israel’s withdrawal from the land it occupied after the 1967 war and on negotiations with Israel leading to Palestinian self-rule and sovereignty. But Mr Fayyad suggests bypassing the formal peace process, now anyway at a standstill, partly because Israel refuses to stop building or expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and on the Arab-populated east side of Jerusalem. Last week Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, angered American and Palestinian negotiators by insisting that 450 housing units in West Bank settlements would be built under plans previously approved.

He also criticised Palestinians for mooting unilateral action and pooh-poohed Mr Fayyad’s plan, so it has little chance of implementation any time soon. Though Palestinians can travel a bit more freely in the West Bank, the Israelis still control the borders and roads, the air space, energy and communications, access to water, and much else. Palestine’s economy is still in thrall to Israel. Political uncertainty, settlement expansion, continuing closures and a host of bureaucratic hassles deter investors. Palestinian living standards are still below the level of 2000. The PA relies heavily on foreign aid.

Gaza, in any event, is a different, still far grimmer, story. Its 1.5m people, accounting for two-fifths of a would-be Palestinian state’s 3.8m-plus people, still suffocate under a blockade imposed by Israel since mid-2007, when Hamas expelled the Fatah-run PA government. Nearly half of Gazans are jobless. Industry has virtually ground to a halt. Sewage is untreated. Israel refuses to let Gazans freely import building material or cement, since they may be used for military purposes. Thousands of houses destroyed during the Israeli assault on Hamas early this year are heaps of rubble. Israel wants Gazans to note the West Bank’s improvement—and to back Fatah.

Things could perhaps improve if an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held captive in Gaza for more than three years, is freed in a prisoner exchange that might, according to latest reports, see 450 Palestinian prisoners also released.

But even in the West Bank many Palestinians do not share the new mood of cautious optimism. An uncle of Muhammad, the boy recently killed, sits glumly outside the family’s sweet shop, his eyes red with grief. He had brought the boy up as his own son, since Muhammad’s father had been killed by Israeli soldiers seven years ago. Such incidents still abound, ensuring that the well of Palestinian bitterness runs deep. Most Palestinians still find it hard to conceive of a durable peace with Israel.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017