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Monday, March 22, 2010

Ashton in Gaza: When the "experts" are clueless

One of the more frustrating parts of watching the Middle East is when one sees that people who should have some basic knowledge, who present themselves as experts, and who urge actions based on their experience and expertise, are completely clueless.

Meet Catherine Ashton.

Lady Ashton is the high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and vice president of the European Commission. She visited Gaza last week, and, armed with the latest on-the-ground intelligence, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times describing exactly what needs to be done to make the Middle East a happy place again.

Here is her first paragraph:
It is the process of entering the Gaza Strip that strikes you most. At the Erez checkpoint you go into what looks like a modern airport terminal. Leaving it you move through a winding maze of gates and walls and emerge, like a time-traveler transported backwards, on a dirt track. This is where the industrial center of Gaza used to be, before the shelling just over a year ago. Now, people with donkeys and carts carry stones from the rubble.


Ashton is stating as fact that the heartless Israelis, for no discernible reason, reduced the Erez area to rubble during Operation Cast Lead and bombed the formerly prosperous industrial area to the stone age.

The Erez Industrial Zone was a joint Israeli/Arab project that started in 1970, a scant three years after Israel took over Gaza in the Six Day War. It predated any negotiations. It started when the PLO was universally recognized as a purely terror organization. In other words, it was a triumph of Israeli optimism that was an early success in working together with the Palestinian Arab population under Israeli control. It provided thousands of jobs for Gazans - jobs that did not exist when they were under Egyptian control. It was an economic win-win.

By 2001, there were 187 businesses at Erez - carpentry shops, textile factories, metal works and garages, employing some 5000 Arabs who were able to provide for their families in dignity.

Then came the Intifada.

Between 2001 and 2004, at least 11 Israelis were killed at Erez by terror attacks. Hamas and Islamic Jihad specifically targeted this successful symbol of cooperation and peace. The companies that were there found it more and more difficult to keep their businesses open while providing a safe environment for their employees. Millions of dollars were lost because of the terror attacks.

Finally, in 2004, the Israeli government announced that it could no longer keep the industrial area open, and all Israeli companies withdrew. Hamas terror was successful, and in the years since, the Erez industrial zone has fallen into disuse. Some 500 mortars and rockets were shot from and to the area. A truck bomb caused millions of dollars worth of damage.

Of course, Gaza could still have grown economically even after the Israelis withdrew their citizens from the area. Read this optimistic editorial from Ma'an in 2005:
Nothing can stop in front of the strong will speaking through a number of voices; the occupation of Gaza is almost over, it will be as free as an unbound Arabian horse two weeks from now.

Theoretically, Gaza will be supported by $3 billion in assistance from donor countries. If this amount of money, "$3 billion," is used for national investment, in an honest and decent way, through professional hands, it will be enough to transform the economic situation in Gaza in a remarkable way.

Gaza is capable of producing agricultural products sufficient enough to supply both itself and the entire West Bank. Bearing witness to this is the fact that while Israel exports 1,500 tons of strawberries, Gaza exports 7,500 tons of them. According to the numbers, greenhouses in Gaza have nearly the same productive capability as all those in Israel, Syria and Jordan combined.

Also theoretically speaking, Gaza will have the industrial areas of Erez and Karni, which will allow for the creation of thousands of jobs, in addition to those jobs that will be created by the Gaza sea and airports.

Theoretically, Palestine will be supported by other Arab nations in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East in addition to a number of European countries. It is believed that many people will the wish to assist in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Officials will be receiving a marvelous area for investment and the Palestinian people are diligent workers, with their small population equivalent to that of Kuwaitis.

Practically, we will see, and we will witness that history will condemn those who place obstacles in the way of the area's development, and will write in golden letters about those who built the future of Gaza.
Unfortunately, the Erez Industrial Zone had not turned into an example of a self-sustaining Gaza business model. In fact, within a short time after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, it had ceased to be a serious source for employment.

The same forces that destroyed Erez now control Gaza.

Yet the EU foreign policy chief does not know these basic facts, and blames Israel for the economic problems of Gazans.

The rest of the op-ed betrays the same kind of ignorance and naivete that we see in the first paragraph. Arrogant diplomats prescribe the solution that "everyone knows" is the only possible one, without having a clue of the history of the area and who was responsible for previous failures. It is a stunning combination of hubris and willful blindness that is all too common from diplomats whose desire for "peace" trumps their ability to see simple facts.

Part 2 here.