It doesn’t add up

Posted on 14 July 2012

We tagged on to a group of Australians here on a tour as part of their Jewish studies programme. When we arrived in Ramallah, they were listening to Palestinian-American businessman, Sam Bahour.

Sam speaks brilliantly. He is engaging, articulate, entertaining and always gets straight to the point. As we snuck in, he was talking about permits and permission to go to Jerusalem. His account of trying to get permission to go to Jerusalem was almost comedic, except I know that every word he said was true and that the ridiculous is the norm here.

Sam had managed to get a precious one-day permit (tisrehah) and discovered that others were able to get a three-month permit. Of course, he explained, no one from the Israeli side offers explanations or information about the system, so he goes back to his “community” to find out how to get this wonderful three month permit. “You need a magnetic card”, he was told.

So, he embarks on the next phase, getting the magnetic card. He finally gets it but discovers this entitles him to nothing! No extension to his permit. The card is purely for identification purposes: all Palestinians who have this card are biometrically accounted for in Israel’s system of control of Palestinians.

So he then goes back to ask for the three month permit, citing his business activities as the reason why he requires a permit to enable him to travel more freely. (Imagine, being able to travel unhindered in your own land!) He is now asked for his businessman’s card. He quickly takes on from his pocket and offers it to the Israeli behind the screen. “No, a businessman’s card.” Again he goes back to his “community” to discover what this “businessman’s card” is.

Of course, this all takes time. And it all part of the vast control system, which is arbitrarily administered by design. A Palestinian never knows if and when any request will be processed, and if it will be granted. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Such is life under these conditions of oppression.

Sam went on to talk about the economy, and gave me a lesson in economics I’ll never forget. (It’s hardly my strong point.) Outside, especially in the media and from various government departments and non-governmental agencies, there is much applause at the thriving economy of the West Bank, and notably much praise of Salam Fayyad as the arcitect of such success. (I wrote a while back about the facade that is the economy here.)

I’ve never understood what GDP really meant, until Sam explained it Palestine-style. The more people in a country (or territory in the case of Palestine) spend, the higher the GDP. And the higher the GDP, the more successful the economy. Except that doesn’t quite work here. The premise being the more money people have, the more they spend, and the more they spend, the more is produced, etc, etc.

So, Sam takes us on a journey to illustrate how ludicrous this really is. He needs to drive from Ramallah to Bethlehem. If there were no occupation, checkpoints, settlers, soldiers, etc, it’s a matter of a 20-30 minute drive at most, through Jerusalem. But, of course, it’s not. It’s more like one hour and 45 minutes. (We managed a remarkable one hour 30 minutes!) On the first journey, his tyres are worn by, say, 2%. But on the second journey, the real one, it would be four or five times that.

Sam likes to eat, he says so himself. So on the first journey, maybe he’d have a sandwich and a drink. On the second, he have that two or three times, perhaps. And the roads are being heavily used (there is only one road between Bethlehem and Ramallah) so there’s wear and tear which requires repair. On so on, and so on. This all adds up to what is in reality a false GDP, painting a picture of economic vibrancy that is just not true.

He ended there, and I hope his audience really listened and tried to imagine themselves living in his reality, one that bears no resemblance to  the one they’ve come from or the one they’ve been experiencing in Israel.

Then he was off to his next meeting; magnetic card, businessman’s card and sandwich at the ready.

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