For years, Tony Blair has made an art out of ignoring obvious but inconvenient facts. This is a man who led his country into an illegal war in Iraq and – even after years of chaos, after millions of disrupted Iraqi lives, after hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed civilians – still continues to argue that it was worth it. As an architect of the war, he still believes he can be a spokesperson for Iraqis.
The same must surely be said for his tenure as Representative of the Quartet, a job he has held for seven years, promoting economic growth in Palestine on behalf of the UN, the EU, the US and Russia. Speaking in Prague this week as he opened a two-day conference on using international investment to build industries and create jobs, he said there was enormous potential in the West Bank and Gaza. Improvements in the economy of Palestine, he said, would improve the quality of life of Palestinians.
Mr Blair is right, of course. But he failed to ask precisely what it might be that is hindering the economy of Palestine? This is not a complicated question. The answer has been known since 1967. It is the brutal Israeli occupation of the lands of Palestine.
In October last year, the World Bank released a report pointing out that the occupation is costing Palestine US$3.54bn every year. Note that this only applied to the West Bank. The cost to Gaza of the strangling siege – in place since 2006 – was unestimated. Israel has taken every opportunity to impoverish Palestinians, a cruel policy described by an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert as putting “the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger”. Chillingly, Israel even calculated the minimum calories needed for men, women and children.
It is the occupation that has stopped Palestinian entrepreneurs from reaping the rewards of their effort. On the West Bank, illegal mega-settlements siphon off water from Palestinians and use it for Jewish-only housing and industries. Palestinians are effectively forced to work in these industries, but are barred from owning a business in their own country. Gaza’s borders are shut and Israel controls imports and exports.
No wonder then, without access to their own resources, without controlling their land borders or the sea or their airspace, without being able to move freely between the West Bank and Gaza, without controlling what comes in or goes out of their country and with their land daily stolen by the Israeli state, that the Palestinian economy is suffering. In fact it is a tribute to Palestinian ingenuity that it continues to survive at all.
There is enormous potential in Palestine. Mr Blair should help the Palestinians achieve it by working to remove the biggest obstacle that Palestinians face. Palestinians don’t need lectures on economic growth. They need political pressure that ends the occupation.