Nearly six months of sustained violence against Israel has left the Palestinian Authority economically destitute. Per-capita income has fallen about one-third, from $2,000 to $1,400. The population living below the poverty line has gone up by 50 percent. Unemployment has gone up four-fold, from 11% to 45%. Recipients of United Nations aid to alleviate hardship has increased tenfold, from 8.5% to 85%.
US Ambassador Martin Indyk finds the Palestinian economy "on the brink of collapse." A UN source predicts that, if nothing is done, the PA "could collapse by the end of March." To prevent this, Israel is being pressed from all sides, in US Secretary of State Colin Powell's words, to "lift the siege."
The assumption behind this pressure, as explained by London's Independent newspaper, is that economic problems are causing the PA territories to slide into an anarchy that undercuts PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's ability to negotiate with Israel "over restoring calm." Implicitly, those calling on Israel to ease the economic pressure are saying that no matter what the PA does - break its word, incite hatred, sponsor violence - Israel's enlightened self-interest requires it to assure that Palestinians economically fare decently.
This, to put it mildly, is a highly original argument.
When the UN had a problem with Rhodesia, South Africa, and Libya, it pursued exactly the opposite approach and imposed an embargo to cripple those countries economically. Similar embargoes remain in effect on Iraq and Afghanistan. The goals are multiple: weaken the military machine, punish the leadership, demoralize the regime's supporters, turn the population against its rulers. The US government uses the same tactics: generations-old embargoes remain in place on Cuba and North Korea.
Nor is this anything new, for conflict has always had an economic angle. Ancient armies cut supply routes. Medieval cities were starved into submission. Two centuries ago, during the Napoleonic wars, the British Navy established a naval blockade to cut France off from supplies. World Wars I and II witnessed extensive use of economic deprivation.
What Israel is doing - withholding tax money, denying entry to laborers, and restricting movement - fits into an ancient, sensible, and somewhat effective method of warfare. Why, then, is it expected to do otherwise?
The reason, ironically, has little to do with the UN or US and much to do with Israelis themselves. They developed the "new Middle East" notion (which others now echo) that Israel's long-term welfare and security lies, not in depriving its enemies of resources, but in helping them develop their economies. This, the American analyst Patrick Clawson writes, is "a vision of the Middle East that looks for all the world like the French plan for Europe after World War II: use economic cooperation as the starting point for cementing ties and reconciling peoples, with the goal being a common market that in turn leads to close political ties."
But Germans were incorporated into the French vision, it bears noting, not while Hitler ruled, but after the Nazi defeat. The French plan built up the former enemy only after he was crushed, acknowledged his errors, and had a totally new government. By a similar token, American aid packages will flow to Iraq only when Saddam Hussein is history.
In contrast, the "new Middle East" idea offered economic help even before the war is over. It is tantamount to sending the enemy resources while fighting is still under way - not a hugely bright idea so long as, in Efraim Inbar's words, "Arafat and his coterie are part of the problem and not of the solution" ("Chaos is not so bad," Jerusalem Post, March 5). Accordingly, the strengthening of Arafat will hardly "restore calm." Rather, it will provide him with the resources for a bigger arsenal and a more long-lasting intifada.
Until the Palestinians do give up their war against Israel, they need to be shown that aggression carries a heavy price. The higher that price, experience shows, the sooner they are likely to give up their hostile ways. Thus all who hope for a resolution of the Palestinian problem should urge the Sharon government to squeeze the PA just as hard as it can. Ironically, this is in the long-term interests of everyone, including the Palestinians themselves.