Message 3: Why the Status Quo is Unsustainable?
The status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is never a full status quo. It changes continuously, as more quiet periods turn sometimes into waves of violence, andthen again, with the decline of violence, the status quo reaches a new equilibrium. Many forces work hard to keep the status quo. The Israeli government has more than once declared that its policy is to manage the conflict, not to solve it. It therefore exerts great efforts to preserve and continue the status quo. Many people have strong interests in the preservation of the status quo. The settlers, Israeli industrialists who export to the Palestinians, construction companies who employ Palestinian workers and some Palestinians as well, like those who work for Israeli contractors, and many others. Still, despite the efforts of the Israeli government and its powerful organization and the many people who share these interests, the status quo seems to be elusive than ever. It suffers many disruptions and it keeps changing continuously. This message claims that there are inherent forces that change the status quo, usually to the worse. In other words, the status quo is not actually a stable steady state and it is bound to deteriorate and lead to more intense confrontations.
This prediction, that the status quo between Israel and Palestine is unsustainable relies on a number of reasons. The first reason is the dynamics on the Israeli side. It is clear that as long as the status quo continues it strengthens the settlers. It increases their numbers, as their rate of population growth is higher than that of other Israelis. Also, there are strong economic pressures that push Israelis to move to the settlements, mainly cheaper housing in a country that suffers from extremely high housing prices. The continuation of the status quo also raises the political power of the settlers. The reason is that the continuing conflict raises tension and hatred between Arabs and Jews. This strengthens the political support to the right wing and that of course supplies greater political power to the settlers.The growing size and power of the settler population create pressures by them to expand their areas of living and of activity, which leads to increasing the pressure on the Palestinians. One example of such pressure is more land confiscation, in order to expand existing settlements, by adding extensions to existing settlements and even by building new settlements. Another example of such pressure is in the area of mobility within the West Bank. The growing number of settlers leads them to look for more roads at their disposal or to expand existing roads. That might lead to greater mobility restriction on Palestinians in roads that settlers use more, and even more land confiscation when new roads are built or older roads are expanded. A third example of such pressure is around places that are holy both for Jews and for Arabs, like in Jerusalem or in Hebron. When the settlers become stronger, they dare to try to increase their activity in these places beyond the status quo. Thus, they exert pressure to increase the hours of prayers in the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and to restrict mobility of Palestinians in its vicinity. A similar effort was led by extreme groups in 2015 to begin Jewish prayers on Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif. These pressures on Palestinian land, on Palestinian mobility, on Palestinian way of life, create counter reactions and increase the frequency of Palestinian bursts of violence. This of course leads to further oppression and to further restrictions on mobility of Palestinians and on their daily lives in general. Thus, the cycle of violence is intensified and disables a smooth continuation of the status quo.
The second reason why the status quo is continuously deteriorating is that it limits economic development of Palestinians, as shown in our studies. In the more than 20 years since the Oslo agreement GDP per capita in Palestine was quite stagnant. Labor productivity even declined, due to significant barriers to mobility, high risk, which deters investment, and due to Israeli restrictions on capital accumulation. The decline of labor productivity means that wages have become lower as well, so that the income distribution among Palestinians became more unequal. These developments lead to increasing social and economic tensions, especially as the economic needs of Palestinians increase. Their population increases, more of them become educated and look for a better future, whiletheir standards of living are stagnant and even falling for many wage earners. An example for the effect of the growing Palestinian population can be its effect on food supply. While demand for food in Palestine is increasing, the area available for agriculture is decreasing, due to increased building for residence. The main area that the Palestinians could use for developing modern and efficient agriculture is the Jordan Valley, but since it is in area C, it is largely out of bound for Palestinians. As the situation in the Jourdan Valley and in area C in general does not improve and actually becomes worse over time, it increases the pressure on the Palestinian population, which faces rising prices to agricultural products. A similar process is raising the pressures in the area of human capital and employment. Many Palestinian acquire high education. There are more than ten universities and many Palestinians also study in Jordan. As a result, the number of people with high education increases constantly, but the demand for such workers does not. There is not enough investment and as a result, creation of new jobs is lagging behind the supply. This lack of jobs manifests itself in high unemployment but also in the fact that many Palestinians work in jobs for which they are highly over-qualified. This is another source of tension and anger. To these economic pressures, we can also add the general political distress created by the status quo. People who live under occupation and yearn for its end, for reaching national independence, for gaining more control over their lives, understand that the status quo is their worst enemy. As long as it continues, it pushes their hopes to a more distant future. These pressures increase the fragility of the status quo and lead sooner than later to new bursts of violence. These dynamics on the Israeli side and on the Palestinian side are two reasons why the status quo is actually not a status quo at all. It cannot be a sustainable policy. Not only that it is doomed to explode frequently,we expect these explosionsto be harsher and more frequent over time.
Finally, there are the dynamics of the conflict itself, which make the status quo unsustainable. The Israeli-Arab conflict has gone through significant changes over the last hundred years. We have examined these changes in detail in our recent study, as they have strong economic consequences. Until 1948 the conflict was mainly between Jews/Zionists and Palestinians and it was an ethnic conflict between two communities. Militarily this was a conflict between militias, although the Jewish militia was national while the Palestinian militia was mostly local. In 1948 the conflict movedone step up and became a conflict between states, namely between the state of Israel and the Arab States, mainly Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Militarily, it became a conflictof conventional warfare between armies, which is very costly economically. This stage ended with the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, signed and implemented in 1978-1982. After this agreement it became clear that no military Arab coalition can start a war against Israel without Egypt. This development enabled Israel to reduce its military expenditures significantly, from more than 20 percent of GDP during the 1970s and early 1980s to around 7 percent of GDP today. In 1987 it became clear that the Israeli-Arab conflict returned from a conflict between states to a conflict similar to the one before 1948, the narrow Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Initially it was also a conflict of militias. On the Israeli side was a full army, the IDF, but its main fighting units were infantry units, or other units operating as infantry units. On the Palestinian side were two main militias, the Fatah and the newly created Hamas. Formally, this is the type of the conflict to this day, but in fact, it has dynamics of its own. In 1993 Israel signed an agreement with the PLO, which removed Fatah from the armed confrontation to a large extent. Hamas remained an active fighting militia, but after regaining control over the Gaza Strip in 2007, it lost some of its freedom to act as a militia. The control of a significant territory and population and the responsibilities it involves, led Hamas to reduce its activities and even make efforts to reduce the activity of much smaller organizations in Gaza.
The decline of militia activity left a vacuum and vacuums tend to be filled. The events in 2015 – 2016 clarify this well. When the activity of militias declines, individuals take the initiative and do sporadic acts of violence on their own. Interestingly, a recent news report tells that the new prisoners from this new uprising stay away from both Fatah and Hamas prisoners and are even hostile to them. It is too early to observe whether we are entering a completely new phase in the history of the conflict or not, but we definitely see a gradual change going on in front of our eyes. The once strict militia warfare, which narrowed the conflict to some segments of the population, is now widening to include more and more parts of the population. Interestingly, there is some similarity on the Israeli side as more people, who are neither police officers nor soldiers, use guns against Palestinians. It is therefore clear that this change is making it harder to control the conflict, on both sides. Hence, this development also makes the status quo less sustainable.
References from research by the Aix Group: Palestinian Economic Development, from Economics and Politics in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (2015); The Economic Costs of the Conflict to Israel, Palestinian Economic Development, both in Economics and Politics in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (2015).