Tony Blair was sitting next to Mahmoud Abbas last week -- a familiar sight -- but this was the opening of the first Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem. Its slogan, "Palestine is open for business," seemed to suggest that the place had been closed for a long time. How long? Eight years, since the start of the second Intifada? Forty years, since Israel began occupying the West Bank? Sixty years, since Israel's founding amidst civil war and the expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians?
The collected club of foreign investors and figureheads, it was announced by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad days later, had raised $1.4 billion for investment projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Much of this will go to real estate projects, which provide temporary employment for construction workers, and a stalled $650 million investment in mobile phone infrastructure by the start-up company Wataniya. That plan, it has been widely reported, "has been in the works for 18 months, and Israel still hasn't given final approval for the necessary frequencies."
Lost in the reports on investors' cautiousness about security, or the tourist potential of Bethlehem, or roadblocks that "choke" Palestine's economy, are the implications of such fundraising amidst an on-going military occupation. It echoes the inadequacy of diplomacy that talks about the slow dismantling of checkpoints and not the gargantuan and illegal concrete "separation barrier" or "security fence" that Israel has been building against a chorus of reasoned and international objection.
It's a wall, no matter how American presidential candidates describe it, and a very intrusive one that snakes well beyond the 1949 Armistice line, dissecting Palestinian towns, farms and villages. It's an apartheid wall for an apartheid system of occupation that is reduced to apparently digestible tropes of "security" and "anti-terrorism" in American media.
Stop The Wall, a coalition of Palestinian NGO's and popular committees working peacefully to articulate opposition to the wall and the occupation, is the kind of civil society product that American politicians call for in speeches promoting a Palestinian state. Except for the fact that Stop the Wall bills itself as "the Grassroots Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign." At the opening of last week's investment conference in Bethlehem -- a city surrounded by guard towers and walls, one bearing a sign, put up Israel's Ministry of Tourism, that reads "Peace Be With You" in three languages -- Stop The Wall released a detailed and critical report of foreign aid and fundraising initiatives that are otherwise applauded in the international press. The report's main argument is that"
"the current approach to development, which is entirely removed from the needs of Palestinian communities, aims to normalize relations with the occupation, treating it as development partner in projects across the West Bank."
The efforts of Palestinian grassroots organizations to express different models for economic development are important, for one, because they get little to no attention in the press, particularly in America. There are civil society initiatives in Palestine, but reading the mainstream media we are to believe that there is next to nothing between the corruption and unpopularity of the Palestinian Authority and the militancy of Hamas. Reports like Stop the Wall's on "Development or normalization? A critique of West Bank development approaches and projects" have, not surprisingly, been ignored in American media.
What's more, if economic development plans go forward as peace talks falter, they work within an unresolved system of Israeli land-grabs, annexations and settlements that are conceded as facts of Palestine's economy and, therefore, part of any final two-state solution.