Global gearbox, local transmission

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Among the most oft-dissected features of the Oslo process between Palestinians and Israelis was the globalizing rhetoric with which its main protagonists sought to recontextualize the conflict. Promoted by the United States and the European Union and encapsulated in former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East,” it proffered that economic integration would not only underpin political accommodation in the region, but in itself constitute a necessary response to new global economic realities. This blurred developmentalist narrative has since been eclipsed by other political realities, but after September 11, its echoes reemerged in the form of new governance agendas advanced by the United States and the international community, both in the wider Arab region and the Palestinian territories. These agendas draw on the now-popularized notion that at the heart of the region’s troubles is its failure to come to terms with such global realities. Unfortunately, they have drawn few lessons from Oslo and the political iniquities that its globalizing agendas at times not only glossed but reinvested.

Among the most influential perpetuators of such omissions has been New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman, who after September 11 could accordingly lace "a serious and respectful dialogue with the Muslim world and its political leaders about why many of its people are falling behind,” with the following comment: “if Palestinians had said: ‘We are going to oppose the Israeli occupation, with nonviolent resistance, as if we had no other options, and we are going to build a Palestinian society, schools and economy, as if we had no occupation’ they would have had a quality state a long time ago. Instead they have let the occupation define their whole movement and become Yasir Arafat’s excuse for not building jobs and democracy.”

The underlying narrative, that the current Intifada was a reaction to Arafat’s misrule, and thus launched in order to divert attention from it, has belatedly found favor with Israeli media commentators, and since been echoed widely in post-9/11 diagnoses of Arab "inabilities to cope" with "globalization" and "modernity". But under the tutelage of institutions such as the World Bank, the Palestinians did indeed try to globalize during Oslo, and in this precedent lies the revealing tale of globalizing imperatives transmitted through a local reality of occupation.

One of a few upshots of the New Middle East vision that accompanied Oslo was an industrial estates program aimed at reintegrating Palestinian labor into the Israeli economy following the institutionalization of Israeli closures on the occupied territories. Similar estates had already been implemented in Gaza during the first Intifada, as part of an Israeli counterinsurgency policy that deployed a limited “development” to contain rising local desperation. In seeking to build support for the Oslo process, the program’s sponsors, including the World Bank and USAID, expressed similar concerns. Yet while responding to a particular, local and historically-structured reality, the program was marketed and modeled on a universal Export Processing Zone template, which, to date replicated in over 600 locales, has become a marked feature of the developing world’s response (as recommended by international financial institutions) to the demands of globalization.

In the Palestinian territories, these globalizing imperatives eased into Israeli prerogatives, structured by interim economic accords that turned Israel officials into the gatekeepers of the local economy through a restrictive and discriminatory set of quota and border controls. When combined with Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement inside the territories, these obstructions raised Palestinian transaction costs to prohibitive levels on the magnitude of 20-30 percent of production values, dwarfing any funds that the Palestinian Authority diverted from the local economy. Israelis either serving in public positions or with connections to their security establishment meanwhile took their own share, making small careers out of the rent-seeking enabled by their "clearing" of obstructions for captive Palestinian clients. Such facilitation notably greased the implementation of the first pilot industrial estate in Karni, Gaza, packaged finally in an Israeli “security solution” for its site, and sold to the estate’s Palestinian operator by the former military governors of the occupied territories, according to Israeli army specifications.

It may not be incidental that one of the few instances of “globalized development” to spring from Oslo’s imaginaries thus came to mean mainly that, as during the first Intifada, Palestinians became tightly monitored guests in their own economy. While this may not have been the intention of the program’s sponsors, it folded naturally into a globalizing rhetoric which, to use Friedman’s words, can pursue development “as if there was no occupation.” Those who would subscribe to such notions should be reminded that in Palestine, as elsewhere, global economic gears may churn, but the transmission is local and political.

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Peter Lagerquist is a journalist and researcher based in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Some of the material for this article is drawn from his paper "Privatizing the Occupation: the Political Economy of an Oslo Development Project" which appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitterlemons-International.

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