While recent months have seen a significant increase in global support for Palestinian liberation in response to Israel’s attempts at forcibly dispossessing Palestinians of their homes, the absence of one putatively important actor has been notable.
Said actor, the Palestinian Authority (PA), has instead focused its energies on violently suppressing Palestinian protest, especially those that have arisen in response to the PA’s alleged assassination of activist Nizar Banat.
While the PA’s involvement in suppressing Palestinian popular protest may surprise some, it makes perfect sense to those familiar with the failed state-building project that the Authority has sought to pursue in the decades following its establishment.
Among the cornerstones of the PA’s state-building project is a commitment to neoliberal economic principles, solidified by President Mahmoud Abbas’s appointment of former World Bank economist Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister in 2007.
In accordance with these principles, the PA has bound itself to creating institutions that facilitate capital accumulation both within the territories that it governs as well as outside of them, even — perhaps, especially — at the expense of the will of Palestinian civil society and grassroots activists and communities.
Fayyad may have resigned as Prime Minister in 2013, but the PA has not moved on from his focus on neoliberal state-building.
The most charitable reading of such an approach to governance in Palestine suggests that the PA’s intentions are to demonstrate that Palestinians can self-govern within the boundaries of the world’s most hegemonic economic logic.
This approach and ordering of priorities, however, requires subjugating the political will, right to self-determination and economic agency of Palestinians due to the inherent paternalism it entails, especially when implemented by a leadership whose own popular legitimacy remains deeply suspect.
It also continues a tradition of relying on ideas of economic rationalism as a pretext and vocabulary to dehumanise Palestinians, delegitimise their anticolonial resistance and argue for the colonisation of their land.
Historical discourses on Palestinian economic backwardness
The Zionist settlement and colonisation of Palestine largely relied on perpetuating myths that erased the presence of Palestinians from their historic homeland.
Even among scholars and propagandists who acknowledged Palestinian presence, narratives of economic backwardness downplayed its significance and even acted as a pretext for colonisation.
Nahla Zu’bi describes two primary trends within Israeli scholarship about the economy of Palestine under the British Mandate.The first trend, represented by historian Smiha Flapan, argued for the existence of “two separate "national economies": a "Jewish capitalist economy", which was able to develop rapidly, and a "traditional and backward Palestinian economy," which wasn’t able to do so, due to competition and “a crisis of modernization in the Arab sector”.
The second trend, represented by Israeli intelligence community veteran Yuval Arnon Ohana, downplays the economic agency of the majority of Palestinians, instead suggesting that acts of protest during the Mandate were instigated by Palestinian political and economic elites who feared the potential impact of Jewish immigration and capital on “their existing status and their means of political and economic control”.
According to Zu’bi, this was because Ohana believed that “British colonialism in Palestine was a force for progress” and that Jewish capital “provided the unemployed fellaheen with wide employment opportunities” – ignoring the fact that the fellaheen (Palestinian agricultural workers) were forced into unemployment in the first place due to the expropriation of the lands they made their living off of.
In addition to the racism inherent in such arguments, the whole premise of the Palestinian economy existing as entirely pre-capitalist during the days of the British Mandate is untrue; Palestine had already been an important part of the world capitalist system in the 19th century.
As the PA and other enablers of Israeli settler colonialism continue to do today, these narratives use racist economic arguments as a method of distraction from the ideologically-motivated dispossession and destruction that Palestinians faced and continue to face.
Developmentalism and dehumanisation
Today, ideas of economic backwardness and helplessness remain pervasive within narratives of “developing” those who live under the PA’s supposed rule.
The presence of NGOs, for instance, accountable to their mostly foreign funders, depoliticises the plight of the Palestinian people, rendering them victims of an objective circumstance rather than as a people oppressed by politically and ideologically manufactured conditions.
The NGO sector has also grown alongside the PA’s deepening commitment to neoliberalism. Funding cycles peddled by actors allergic to directly addressing political realities and the agency of the oppressed further racist ideas about pathological victimhood and development, not so different from the colonial dehumanisation that informed so-called civilising missions in the past.
Outside the realm of NGOs, the PA has also tried to push a developmentalist agenda that aimed to compromise on resistance in exchange for funding.
An early example of this under Fayyad’s rule was the 2007 Palestine Reform and Development Plan (PRDP). According to Sami Tayeb, this plan and others were presented to donors with the objective of gaining support for a Palestinian state “but only if Palestinians could first achieve good governance, economic growth and security”.
US-sponsored proposals, such as Donald Trump’s 2020 Peace Plan, have built on this approach, attempting to further and permanently dispossess Palestinians of their land by offering a series of economic incentives that would only more deeply entrench the neoliberal attempt at a state-building project.
In drafting proposals like the PRDP, the PA solidified its role as a subcontractor to Israel’s colonial occupation. It seeks to prevent popular protest and resistance, which are not only perceived as indicators of bad governance and poor security, but also an obstacle to attracting the type of large-scale investments required to execute the development projects that act as a smokescreen for the disenfranchisement of the majority of Palestinians.
Returning to the violence with which the PA have confronted Palestinian popular protests this year, it is clearer than ever that the PA’s undemocratic insistence on building an integrated, neoliberal economy as a path to state-building makes it so profoundly out of touch with the demands of the people they claim to represent.
So much so that at a time of unprecedented support and visibility for the Palestinian cause, they can only count themselves among the institutions that enact violence upon Palestinian people – purportedly in the name of the good governance and economic rationalism that only the PA and other Palestinian elites understand.
The neoliberal and developmentalist logics that currently dominate the politics of Israel, the United States, global and regional powers and the PA itself indicate that little has changed, and that normative ideas of economic rationalism continue to be used as a pretext for perpetual colonial violence enacted upon Palestinians.
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