After years of travel restrictions, Israel last month opened up its borders to many (not all, of course) Palestinians from the West Bank. In Nablus alone, 17,000 permits were issued out of 25,000 applications. Certain age groups were allowed in without a permit.
The occasion was the holy month of Ramadan, but there is no denial that a decision was taken somewhere in the Israeli military establishment to loosen up the big prison that millions of Palestinians find themselves in. Even the dreaded Qalandia checkpoint all of sudden became much easier to cross, with soldiers merely looking at the car number while crossing, at times without the long lines that have become its trademark.
Naturally, Palestinians were delighted to be able to pray in Jerusalem’s Aqsa Mosque and visit relatives and friends in Jerusalem and inside the Green Line. Many had not been in Jerusalem for decades. Parents took their children (some teenagers) to see a Jerusalem they had never seen. Many flooded West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and other locations.
Palestinians shopped (the Malha mall is said to have sold goods worth two million shekels in one weekend). They hit the beaches and stores, enjoying a rare occasion to get out of the closed area of the West Bank.
The Israeli decision, carried out unilaterally (except for the administrative part at the liaison offices), surprised many, including the political establishment. What was the reason for this Israeli "benevolence" at a time when hundreds of foreigners coming to visit Palestine are denied entry at the King Hussein Bridge?
Palestinian commentators hit the airwaves with arguments, wondering whether the decision was primarily political or economy-related. They said that Israel was satisfied with the high degree of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and that the security situation was the best in years and therefore Israelis wanted to take advantage of this security lull to help release Palestinian tension. Some argued that Israel was concerned that a third Intifada might be around the corner and that their decision allowing masses of Palestinians to move around might help steer people away from a return to violent confrontations.
Others pointed out to the various statistics showing how much Palestinians purchased in Israel and said that this was a calculated decision to help Israeli economy and to counter the boycott of Israeli products. Some, however, said that this does not make sense because the amount of money spent by Palestinians in this one burst is peanuts compared to the large Israeli economy.
Yet others argued that with the Palestinian Authority’s financial situation in dire situation, the number of unemployed Palestinians will increase dramatically, which could contribute to the return of violence. This economic safety valve, it was argued, had more with the idea of returning the Palestinian economy to the days when it was totally depended on Israel. With Israeli companies needing workers and with the anti-African mode in the Israeli public, the argument was that it might be time to allow Palestinian workers who commute and therefore not cause a major social problem in Israel to start working in Israel.
Palestinian labourers are very much desired by Israeli employers because of their high level of productivity, knowledge of Hebrew and understanding of the needs of Israeli employers. To many, the Palestinian workers are much better than the imported Thai workers or the illegal African immigrants.
Whatever the real motivation behind the Israeli move to relax its border crossing policy, it seems clear that a political solution is much further than previously expected.
An independent Palestinian state with strong economic ties with Jordan, Egypt and the Arab world is perhaps farther now than in decades. With the lack of a horizon for peace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic peace initiative is now in high gear, being applied unilaterally by the Israeli army.