Right in the place where empire was scheming to do its worst, a tent went up—and then another, and then a village. A new community was born there, an act of resistance as well as a nurturing space for eating and sleeping and living. People talked and prayed together. There was an explosion of hope in the midst of hopelessness. But before long the empire had enough. It sent in its army of militarized police, and the village was destroyed.
This is the story of Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Square in the fall of 2011, yes. But it is also what happened earlier this year in the West Bank. The village of Bab al-Shams, whose name means “Gate of the Sun,” appeared early in the morning on January 11. Two days later, in the dark of night, Israeli soldiers tore it down.
Bab al-Shams was located in the area known as E1, which the Israeli government had recently designated for the expansion of the Maale Adumim settlement, effectively closing off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and dividing a land and a people from itself. The announcement came in retaliation for the affirmation of Palestinian representation at the United Nations. There, the vast majority of countries in the world voted to grant what Israel has for decades denied: the rights of Palestinians to sovereignty and participation in the international community.
The people who built Bab al-Shams sought to challenge the “facts on the ground” by which Israel has been gradually removing those who inhabit and cultivate Palestinian land. With the help of billions of dollars in military and economic aid from the United States government each year, and relying on a steady influx of U.S. investors and settlers, this slow creep of expansion and expulsion reenacts our own country’s bloody history. There are many ways in which the circumstances of Bab al-Shams differ from those of Liberty Square, but both encampments rose up from the ground to oppose the same imperial appetite for growth. The past, present, and future of the United States and Palestine are bound together.
Palestine today is a land and a people caught in a stranglehold. Israel controls all trade, borders, movement of people, airspace, water, electricity, and other vital resources, and it polices the occupied territories through unlawful means: military rule, arbitrary detention, land seizure, settlement-building. A critical, and much less publicized, ingredient of Israeli policy today is the Palestinian debt trap, which represents both a means of repression and a prospect for liberation.
The public debt of the Palestinian Authority is approaching $5 billion—as much as 70 percent of GDP—and more than $1 billion of that is external debt. For an economy still heavily dependent on foreign aid, this volume of public-sector indebtedness is alarming. Household debt has also skyrocketed, largely because relatively new bank lending programs are being used to finance homes, cars, marriages, computers, and educations. So, like almost everywhere else, an ever larger share of personal income and government revenue is being swallowed up by debt service. All over the globe, debts are imposed and manipulated for the sake of social control, but this is all the more true for a people under siege in a struggle for self-determination.
The Paris Protocol of 1994 dictates that Israel must collect and fairly distribute revenue from Palestinian taxes and custom duties. In violation of the agreement, it regularly withholds these funds as punishment for resistance activity—particularly when identified with Hamas—and also as a way to capture Palestinian debts owed to Israeli enterprises. The value of these debts is magnified by the charging of exorbitant Israeli prices for utilities, fuel, and other necessities, even though Palestinians’ incomes and employment levels are lower by a third or more. In these ways and others, Israel not only profits lavishly from supplying Palestine but also wields direct discipline through its automatic powers of debt extraction. It can turn the spigot of fiscal pain on or off at will.
Less direct is the role of the Palestinian Authority, which, like most forms of colonial “self-rule,” has an acutely schizophrenic personality. In its most recent manifestation, under the neoliberal regime of ex-World Bank economist Salam Fayyad, the PA has encouraged the debt-financing of basic needs by relaxing the lending requirements of Palestinian banks. In Ramallah, where highly paid NGO employees compete with government officials in the marketplace for villas and luxury automobiles, locals talk of a “bubble” economy, driven by a cappuccino lifestyle that claims to fulfill the new Palestinian Dream. Material goods and luxuries that are commonplace for Israelis on the other side of the Green Line are sustained, for Palestinians, by a debt burden that stifles political dissent. Those who enjoy certain privileges from serving in the colonial administration stand to lose them if they do not assist in suppressing the insurgencies of fellow Palestinians.
The Fayyad administration has also embarked on a program of “state readiness,” grooming Palestine for sovereignty according to the template required by global capitalist institutions. To qualify for statehood in the neoliberal global order, a nation must show that it can attract investors to its government bonds. Preparing for sovereign debtworthiness involves jumping through hoops laid out by the IMF and the World Bank: public austerity, unrestricted access to foreign investors, deregulated markets. Also implied in this courtship is permitting these institutions to override elected governments and set policy directly, either to ensure that foreign bondholders are paid in full or to quell political instability. Meanwhile, Israel’s expanding settlements in the West Bank make a mockery of the ever more elusive Palestinian state, dangled still as a seductive promise before the PA bureaucrats.
So who benefits from this debt trap? In Israel, the greatest beneficiaries are the supplier firms, the brokers of colonial power, and those sectors among the population who materially benefit from the occupation. In Palestine, it is the bankers and business elites who stand to profit, either from extractive lending or from the land and commodity markets financed by the loans. International beneficiaries range from the would-be creditors of a new capitalist client state, to the geopolitical power-brokers who favor the current “stability” of the occupation, with its bantustans strategically isolated by Israeli settlements and paramilitary infrastructure.
And what of the Palestinians who are caught in the trap? For the affluent few, the possession of debt is a sign of status, one of the trappings of modernization—but it is also a self-disciplining asset, arguably more effective than any instrument of military pacification. Those in the Gaza Strip, the villages, and the refugee camps are more directly disciplined. They are ground down by austerity based in a perceived scarcity that’s as artificial as the GDP growth numbers, which are borne aloft by the contributions of international donors.
The psychology of debt impels us to think at every level about who and what Palestinians owe. But since we refuse to value fellow human beings by their relationship to capital, we should be asking the opposite question. We owe to Palestinians at least what we demand for ourselves: freedom from occupation, freedom from new forms of colonization, freedom to return to, inhabit, and live in a territory which we or our parents and grandparents called home, without annexation, without financialization, without exclusion, without pollution, and without the destruction of the common resources that nurture and sustain life.
Freedom and social justice are intrinsically collective. They require us to recognize as well as traverse the divisions that perpetuate oppression. This, however, did not appear to be the case for the 2011 protest encampments set up by Israelis in Tel Aviv in 2011. Although these “occupiers” proclaimed their solidarity with a global movement against austerity and debt, Palestinian voices and grievances were not welcomed. How are we to understand a call for social justice or solidarity when the worst forms of oppression in one’s own midst are not addressed?
Out of a desire for social justice and solidarity, we boycott, divest from, and sanction those who profit from keeping Palestinians in the limbo of debt. We express our bond with those in bondage by these acts of refusal. These acts of refusal are also acts of love. Militant love. There will be no peace or justice in Palestine until the outstanding debt to its people is recognized and paid through a mutual and collective struggle for justice, liberation, and autonomy.
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