Ramallah, West Bank — On the fifth floor of a modern commercial building in this bustling, increasingly upscale city, Mohammed, a 25-year-old graduate of Al Quds University sat in front of the laptop he was trying to repair and pondered what a future Palestinian state might look like.
Dressed comfortably in a light-green T-shirt and fashionably faded jeans, a cigarette between his fingers, Mohammed, who like many Palestinians was reluctant to see his full name in print, imagined “being able to move freely, without checkpoints or walls. We would be free to do what we want.”
While Mohammed said the Palestinian people are ready for a country of their own (“We’ve been under occupation for 63 years!”), he acknowledged that “Palestine” might not be ready for statehood.
“We’re not totally ready. There’s not enough infrastructure, not in industry, not in government,” he said, adding that it took him, with a degree in electrical engineering, a year to find work in a computer store.
In 2010, 16.5 percent of West Bank Palestinians are unemployed, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“I sat home for a year and most of my friends are still unemployed,” Mohammed said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before Palestine is a functioning country.”
Just how much state-building their leaders can do prior to official statehood is a subject of debate within Palestinian society. Some, citing Israeli and international restrictions, believe the process can only begin in earnest after their nation gains independence; others insist that “Palestine” will not be ripe to become a state unless it first tackles such basic issues as economic independence, human rights abuses and Hamas violence.
In a report issued in early September, the World Bank said that the Palestinian Authority had made “substantial progress” in its nation-building efforts.
“In areas where government effectiveness matters most — security and justice; revenue and expenditure management; economic development; and service delivery — Palestinian public institutions compare favorably to other countries in the region and beyond.”
These efforts “have played a crucial role in enabling the positive economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza in recent years,” the World Bank report said.
However, the same report called this growth “unsustainable, driven primarily by donor aid rather than a rebounding private sector” that remains “stifled by Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets.”
The International Monetary Fund also says that the PA is now able to conduct “the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state,” based on the reforms and financial institution-building it’s performed during the past couple of years.
Per capita GDP rose by 8 percent in 2010.
Despite the somewhat upbeat predications, Basem Ezbidi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit Univeristy, near Ramallah, is deeply concerned about the challenges ahead.
“Lots of things have been accomplished in this part of the world,” Ezbidi emphasized, referring to the increasing economic prosperity and sense of law and order wrought by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “They have done the utmost with the resources available.”
But while the Palestinian Authority can try to lay the groundwork for a future state, Ezbidi said, right now “it is nothing more than a number of institutions that have no teeth.”
For one thing, he said, the Palestinian Authority’s budget is derived almost entirely from donor aid and a percentage of the tax revenues Palestinian workers pay to Israel. The last time Israel withheld some of the money, the political scientist said, civil servants didn’t receive their salaries.
Ezbidi said other obstacles to planning include existing Israeli roadblocks, the lack of geographic contiguity between Palestinian population centers, expanding Israeli settlements and the fact that Israel controls the electric and water sources that enter the West Bank.
Given this dependence, if and when the Palestinians receive a state, “it will mean even more involvement” from donor countries, Ezbidi said. In the short term, at least, “the reliance by the Palestinians will grow even bigger.”
Surrounded by large plasma TVs and sparkling kitchen appliances, Mohammed Abdallah, the branch manager of a high-end store in Ramallah’s city center, insisted that the PA has already improved the quality of life.
“We still live in a big jail, but I have to say it’s much safer than it used to be.”
Abdallah recalled how Palestinian police flagged down his car when he and his wife were returning home late from a wedding.
“Security came by and asked what we were doing at 2 a.m. They’re upholding the law,” he said.
Abdallah also credits the PA for fighting corruption.
“There are government agencies that jail people and monitor their flow of money.”
Saba Nader, a 21-year-old women’s rights activist, said the Palestinians should be granted a state, even if its institutions aren’t fully functional.
“In reality, Palestine is not really ready to be a state, just like southern Sudan wasn’t ready, but that didn’t stop the world from recognizing it,” said Nader as she walked down a busy Ramallah street with a colleague after work.
Dressed in a peasant blouse and jeans, her curly hair unencumbered by the kind of Islamic head scarves worn by most women in the West Bank, Nader acknowledged that Palestinian society “has a lot of things to work on, including the issue of honor killings. We’re still struggling to secure women’s basic right to live.”
Nader, who calls herself “a refugee” because her grandparents lost their home in what is now Israel in 1948, attributes much, if not all, of the women’s struggle to “the Israeli occupation.”
“Our political situation affects every other aspect of life, including women’s rights,” Nader said. “Legislation has to be modified, but to do that, you need true democracy. And for true democracy, you need a state.”
In contrast, Bassam Eid, the director of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group, believes the Palestinian national homeland cannot succeed unless internal human rights abuses are eradicated now.
“The Palestinian Authority has a very disturbing picture on human rights, and the violations even increased after the conflict between the PA and Hamas,” in 2006, Eid said, noting that Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank each tortured to death seven rival faction members.
Eid said that since 2007, several journalists have been “arrested, beaten, their equipment confiscated” by the security forces on both sides. “Fatah-backed newspapers have no chance of being distributed in the Gaza Strip.”
The blunt-talking activist said the Palestinian Authority needs to do much more before it will be able to run a country.
“Mr. Abbas knows very well that the Palestinian economy is 100 percent dependent on Israel. The Palestinian worker today is ready to smuggle himself through checkpoints to earn 5,000 to 6,000 shekels in Israel, instead of working in Ramallah for 1,000. That tells me the PA still isn’t organized,” Eid said.
Eid bemoaned the leadership void that has enabled militants in Gaza to fire rockets into Israel.
When then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to disengage from Gaza in 2005, Eid said, “I remember the Palestinian leadership started giving interviews to all the TV channels around the world declaring that they were ready to take control over the Gaza Strip. They said they were going to build an infrastructure and bring economic prosperity.”
Instead, “Eid said, “we the Palestinians destroyed what [infrastructure] remained from the occupation. By shooting rockets we destroyed Gaza.”
Eid called Israel’s disengagement from Gaza “the most difficult test Sharon put the Palestinian Authority under.
“We failed the test,” Eid said.