The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not solely about land, religion or even security. It is about control and the economics of domination in the technology age. The roots of the conflict were born out of a toxic mix of religious conviction, wartime calculations and security concerns, but nearly five decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have changed the calculus. Now US president Donald Trump appears ready to reflect those changes in official American policy with his so-called “deal of the century.”
What’s remarkable about the Trump plan, as far as it has been revealed, is not that it marks a fundamental shift in American policy but a shift in tone. Despite its official role as a mediator, the US has always sided with Israel on settlements, domination over Palestinian life and aggressive regional policy. Previous US presidents have simply paid lip service to the need for an equitable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
When Trump became president, he acted swiftly to fulfill campaign promises to satisfy crucial Republican mega-donors such as Sheldon Adelson and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Representing, as it does, US recognition of Israel’s claims over Jerusalem, this act was met with shock around the world.
But was it really all that shocking? The US has allowed and indirectly funded Israel’s slow annexation of Jerusalem for the past five decades. Israel’s repeated violations of the Oslo Accords in Jerusalem have met with strong words from American officials but zero action. Removing the mask of impartiality, Trump sees the Palestinians as defenceless, isolated and without legal recourse in Israel’s domination over them. This assessment is not entirely without merit but basing a peace plan on immediate prospects ignores the bitter reality of this long conflict.
For all the innovative straight talk and action of the Trump administration, however, the proposed “economic workshop” planned for Bahrain later this month looks like a page from the old American playbook. Dangling the prospect of billions of dollars in investment, the Trump administration is hoping to enlist the support of Palestinian business leaders. The Oslo Accords were awash with language about Palestinian economic empowerment. With a peace agreement in place, the Gaza Strip could be a hive of economic activity in the Arab world, it was claimed. A new international airport would rival the hubs of the Gulf. The West Bank, with its natural resources and rugged beauty, would attract incredible levels of investment.
Obviously, none of these claims were borne out. The Palestinian economy has always been held hostage by Israeli authorities. Since they have control over everything that comes in and out, it is the Israeli authorities who oversee virtually all Palestinian economic activity. Tel Aviv even prohibits access to high-speed cellular devices to Palestinians on the West Bank, even though the infrastructure is already in place to serve Israeli settlers.
The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the greatest state project in the history of Israel. The country has devoted more resources to securing its military and civilian footprint on the land than to anything else. Like other military adventures, this investment in the occupation has paid incredible dividends for the country’s economy. Just look at Israel’s most valuable exports: military expertise, hardware and technology.
Many of the pioneers of Israel’s famed technology sector, for example, owe their beginnings to the military’s elite 8200 unit. This unit regularly uses the West Bank as a vast laboratory for surveillance technology, perfecting new ways to monitor, track and control Palestinians. After service in the unit, some young Israelis have gone on to create applications such as Waze, a mapping app sold to Google. Israeli military intelligence, equipment and expertise are also refined in the West Bank and then exported around the world.
The occupation enables considerable economic prosperity which Israel will not part with easily. Palestinian business leaders and politicians understand this dynamic all too well and that is why they have already rejected the economic lifelines that will be on offer in Bahrain. An injection of investment, even billions of dollars of investment, will only be a sticking plaster on the festering wound made by an unsustainable situation of occupation, domination and control. Without an equitable peace agreement that recognises and protects the unalienable rights of Palestinians to their own state and the management of their own economy, no amount of investment can end the conflict.
In previous situations of colonization or settlement, the ruling regime divided the native population and a select elite class was richly rewarded in exchange for administering their own subjugation. The Palestinian people today are divided by geography (Gaza Strip and the West Bank) and political ideology (Hamas and Fatah). A ruling class exists, especially in the West Bank, which enjoys deep financial support from Israel and other western backers. This financial class largely administers the status quo, which enables Israel to continue enjoying the fruits of their occupation.
The Bahrain workshop is another attempt to entrench this situation and ensure that it has enough resources to remain viable for the foreseeable future. That Palestinian elites have so firmly rejected the offer points to shifts taking place on the ground. Whether or not those shifts transform into a groundswell of rebellion is anyone’s guess but eventually, the system will break down. As the history of similar conflicts shows, it always does.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.