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A Glimmer of Hope in Bleak Palestine

Photo by Jonas Moffat | CC BY 2.0

The Palestinians’ deteriorating conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip makes even long-term optimism difficult. Neither a one-liberal-state nor two-state resolution seems in the offing because (if for no other reason) either would seem to spell political suicide for any foreseeable Israeli government. The one-staters have a good argument against the two-staters and vice versa. Would it really be easier for an Israeli prime minister to evict 400,000 Israeli Jews from the West Bank (leaving aside the more than 200,000 in formally annexed East Jerusalem) than it would be to agree to one secular democratic state in which non-Jews would soon outnumber Jews if they don’t already? I don’t see it.

Pessimism is reinforced by the recently passed Nation-State law, according to which the Knesset made fully de jure what had long been true de facto: that Israel belongs to Jewish people only (whether religious believers or not and wherever in the world they may currently live) and that the minority of non-Jewish Israelis should think of themselves as little more than guests living there at the pleasure of the Jewish supermajority.

“The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” the law states.  Another part says, “The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles.” Also: “The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” And: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

And we thought laws that specified religious, ethnic, national, or racial groups for special treatment went the way of the dodo bird, at least in western-oriented countries. Israel is officially a throwback to an unenlightened age.

To add insult to injury, Arabic, the language of 20 percent of the population, was demoted from an “official” language to one having only a “special status.”

If most of this was already the reigning state of affairs, why was the law passed? It was passed to constrain Israel’s Supreme Court. Gone is the wiggle room that the sometimes independent-minded court once had.

The law is now part of Israel’s Basic Law, which functions more or less like a constitution. The new law says, “This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.” In other words, there’s no chance in hell of changing it unless Israel’s ruling elite want it changed.

With the case for pessimism so strong, we must take whatever good news we can find. Some of us have longed for the emergence of a charismatic Palestinian figure who, while opposing Israeli oppression and settler-colonialism in all its forms, would also defend individual property rights and free enterprise while condemning both outside donor aid as dependence-inducing and the corrupt, authoritarian, and unrepresentative Palestinian Authority (PA).

Such a person has indeed emerged: Khaled Al Sabawi. Al Sabawi has quite a story to tell. In 1948, during the Zionists’ violent ethnic cleansing of Palestine and establishment of the state of Israel, his father’s family was driven from their home and 50-acre farm in the village of Salama, east of Jaffa. The family fled to Gaza, along with many other refugees. Then in 1956, when Israel, Great Britain, and France launched a war against Egypt, the Israeli army invaded Gaza (30 years before Hamas was formed), ransacking and searching the refugees’ homes, including the home of Sabawi’s grandmother and father. When the soldiers found the grandmother’s deed to their home in Salama, they confiscated it and departed. Apparently, that is just what the soldiers were looking for.

When his father grew up and earned advanced university degrees, he moved to Canada to raise his family. But then he moved back to Palestine and established a large insurance company in the West Bank and Gaza. His son Khaled has now done something similar, graduating from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. After switching from computer engineering to geothermal engineering, he embarked on two entrepreneurial ventures: geothermal energy for the Occupied Palestinians Territories and elsewhere in the Middle East and registration of individual property titles in the West Bank. The latter project is called TABO, the Arabic word for “title deed.”

Before the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophic ethnic cleansing and the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians proudly owned homes and land. But much of that land was not registered with the government because under Ottoman rule, that would have made the owners subject to taxation. Some individual parcels were registered in the name of absentee feudal landlords in Beirut and elsewhere, but the residents, that is, the actual Lockean owners, had to pay rent either in cash or kind. (James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a Stateexplains how governing elites have long used various forms of registration to facilitate taxation and conscription and generally to keep an eye on the people.)

The immediate problem with unregistered land in the West Bank is that Israel might decide to build Jewish settlements on it. The state has long claimed Palestinian properties in the name of the Jewish people. Israel has already built settlements for 400,000 Jews in Area C, which is the 60 percent of the West Bank it rules directly. (Areas A and B have some degree of internal rule by the PA, which polices the Palestinians on behalf of the Israeli government. International law forbids a country to move population into territory occupied during a war.)

An article about Sabawi in Forbes Middle East explained the situation:

In theory, the land [in the West Bank] is untouchable. After Oslo [the 1990s accords that created the PA], the Palestinian territories were divided into three areas: A, B and C, with just the latter falling under direct Israeli control. Al Sabawi works only in Area A, a zone officially under PA administration, but leaves nothing to chance. “If Israel tries to circumvent the agreement[, he says,] they’ll go after land without title deed, because once you have proof of ownership of your land it’s very difficult for anyone to put their hands on it.”

And Al Sabawi is out to keep it that way, securing proud Palestinian land with the papers to prove it.

So his TABO project has the admirable objective of preventing more Israeli settlements on land that Palestinians legitimately own. He and his team work to track down the last owners of properties or their heirs and to plot the boundaries. Forbes reports that “after identifying land for sale from Palestinians who possess inheritance documents but no official papers, Al Sabawi sets about obtaining approval from relevant family members, before determining the borders in a manner more accurate than the ‘this olive tree to that one’ approach.”

“We have to walk every corner of the land with a GPS machine, the head of the village council and every single neighbor,” Al Sabawi said. His work has ruffled feathers, and that may seem unsurprising until you learn that “the challenge did not come from Israel; it came from the Palestinian Authority.”

As he says in his TED Talk:

For our outspokenness [that is, his criticism of the PA], however, we paid a heavy price, one that I never imagined. For our criticism of their leadership, individuals within the Palestinian Authority abused their power and suspended all of the title deed transactions of TABO. Think about this for a moment. To punish us for our freedom of expression, powerful individuals within the Palestinian Authority went out of their way to stop and suspend the registration of Palestinian land, thereby preventing the protection of Palestinian land from Israeli settlement expansion.

In a testament to Al Sabawi’s determination, the project has made progress nevertheless. First, he and his team sued the PA for its abuse of power in the International Court of Justice — and won. With that obstacle cleared, they moved ahead.

Forbes says:

Three years on from TABO’s launch, the initiative has enabled 250 families, both resident and in the Palestinian diaspora, to own 371 plots of land. Of TABO’s sales so far, 30% have been generated by the diaspora. And the cost falls far short of the million dollar price tag hanging from land just minutes away. TABO offers plots for between $13,900 and $32,000, with interest-free payment financed through the company for up to four years.

That was three years ago. The figures are higher now. Al Sabawi says that TABO has protected more than a million square meters of land, paved over 10,000 meters of roads, and helped more than 400 families to acquire 600 properties.

While the PA has obstructed TABO, so has the Israeli government, which harasses, interrogates, and detains Al Sabawi and his team when they try to travel to the West Bank.

Overcoming these hurdles has been an astonishing achievement. When Al Sabawi appeared on Al Jazeera’s television show The Cafe, host Medhi Hasan said, “Sabawi believes corruption is rife inside the Palestinian Authority and says foreign aid has stunted an independent Palestinian economy.” On the program, Sabawi noted:

The Palestinian Authority today has essentially become a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation. When Oslo was created in 1993, and Israel was bearing the economic burden of occupation. It was very expensive, but when the Palestinian Authority was created it essentially started policing the Palestinian cities. But who paid for the bill? All the donor states, the United States, Canada and the entire international community, but Israel fully maintained its occupation. Israel still controlled borders, airspace, water, and pretty much all aspects of life for the Palestinian people, but brought in the Palestinian Authority to manage these cities. So it’s been about 20 years of occupation management, and that’s taken us back significantly, and what it’s created is this entity that’s become, you know, focused more on its self-interest than the interests of the Palestinian people….

[T]he Palestinian leadership … hasn’t served to push Palestinian liberation forward whatsoever. As it stands today, the Palestinian Authority is completely anti-democratic. It has no mandate for the Palestinian people. The people that go and negotiate with Israel, the Palestinian leadership that goes to negotiate with Israel, has no mandate from the Palestinian people. They do not represent them….

Al Sabawi rejects the conventional wisdom that donor aid is indispensable to economic development:

As it stands today, about 40 percent of the GDP of the Palestinian territories is accounted for by donor aid. The Palestinian people, as a result of it, also in the Palestinian Authority, have become the highest recipients of foreign aid in the world per capita. In addition to that, there’s an enormous dependence on the Israeli occupation. Ninety-five percent of our energy comes from Israel; 80 percent of our imports come from Israel; 90 percent of our exports go towards Israel. The Palestinian economy is a sub-economy….

Sabawi clearly sees the perverse consequences of so-called aid:

It compromises the political and economic independence of the Palestinian people.  So if the Palestinian people take an independent road or elect their own government, as they eloquently did in 2006 [in Gaza], so the 80 percent voter turn out, then the donor aid was cut off and the Palestinian people were punished for exercising their democratic rights[,] for being democratic.  And just one small point, the situation now, economically, is far worse than it was before. The PA … is forcing Palestinian banks to give 50 percent of their deposits as loan facilities for the Palestinian people. Why?  Because OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which is an American foreign policy organisation, came and provided loan guarantees for Palestinian banks, for a push to drive the Palestinian economy to be more debt-based. Now debt has accumulated to $3 billion, consumer debt for Palestinian people….  The Palestinian Authority has created further dependent victims of the Palestinian people as opposed to confront[ing] the Israeli occupation.

Champions of liberty can only hope that Al Sabawi inspires a new generation of Palestinian liberators, one that is dedicated to individual freedom and autonomy through private property and free enterprise.

More articles by:

Sheldon Richman, author of Coming to Palestine, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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