About 10 years ago I was at a bus stop on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was 4:15 in the morning and there were only two people at the bus stop: myself and a Palestinian man about my age. He looked far, far older. His skin was weathered, and his gaunt body had the look of one that has been worked harder than it was really meant to be. I love talking to people, I love learning from them. And so, despite the fact that we shared almost no language, I did my best to communicate. The man was a Palestinian laborer who worked in Israel. His specialty was building playgrounds. I told him I was moving to Modiin and he told me he worked in Modiin. He showed me pictures of the playgrounds he’d worked on. I recognized one of them and showed him a picture of my children playing in it. I felt a little uncomfortable, an immigrant to a land he saw as his own, playing on something he built for the occupiers. Surprisingly, though, the man was delighted. Like any other proud builder, he liked to see his work well used. There was a darkness, though.
Somehow, I managed to ask him what playgrounds his own kids played on. He showed me another photo, one of his children. Every one of them was beautiful, but they were standing in a weed-filled gravel patch.
“Ganavim,” he said, in the clearest words of the entire conversation. “Palestinian Authority Ganavim.”
Ganavim is a Hebrew word. It means thieves.
As the world’s criticism grows on the edge of Israel’s invasion of Rafah, I can’t help but think back to that conversation. Within Israel, at least, Hamas is held up as a model of totalitarian religious horror. Some still like to pretend that the Palestinian Authority is better simply because it isn’t as explicit in its terror activities. But terrorism against Jews and Israel is not the only way a government or movement should be measured. The Palestinian Authority – ganavim – are themselves a major impediment to Palestinian freedom.
In the West, we look at movements like Hamas, the Taliban, Somalia’s Al-Shabab and even ISIS and we see terrorist movements. But while these are terrorist movements, their fundamental appeal is not necessarily predicated on terrorism. Their primary offering is something else entirely: justice.
Hamas was offered as a less corrupt – purer – Palestinian government. Al-Shabab was an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union – law was their primary pitch. The Taliban brought order – albeit a religious totalitarian order – to Afghanistan. In each case, these movements were stepping into a void created by fundamentally corrupt and arbitrary governments. Even ISIS was following this pattern. They imposed law – albeit a brutal medieval law – as a method of resisting the corruption of the Iranian-dominated Shia government in Baghdad. In this way, the Palestinian Authority was fundamental cause of the rise of Hamas. Even the Houthis, who today fly a flag of “death to America, death to the Jews” arose as a counterforce to the corrupt President Saleh. While law was not their primary pitch, corruption fueled their advance.
The Western response to many of these movements is to funnel more money into our local ‘allies’ – from the Iraqi government to the Palestinian Authority. To local populations, it appears the Western powers are trying to buy allegiance. Although the money isn’t stolen from the local population, this approach breeds corruption. Those who rise in the society are those who excel at ‘repurposing’ aid to their own purposes. They are so effective at that repurposing that despite billions of dollars in aid, a playground builder in Bethlehem can’t build a playground for his own children. They inevitably not only steal from the West, they rob their own people.
On a per capita basis (with the exception of some tiny islands in the Pacific), Palestine receives more aid than any other country on earth. Palestinians far outrank other major recipients like Rwanda or Malawi in life expectancy or income. They also far outrank them in terms of aid. As a result, Palestine has become the poster child of corruption.
Perhaps the saddest part of the entire reality is that those governments that present themselves as pure and law-based end up just as corrupt those they replaced. Hamas is one of the prime examples.
In the end, funneling money into a local society in order to stop extremism ends up leaving that society with neither justice nor wealth.
Corruption can be seen almost as a festering infection in the body politic. It is most effectively treated by rooting out the obviously infected material, applying anti-septic, layering on healthy tissue and then helping it grow through carefully applied mediums. A serious infection requires in-depth and continual engagement. It isn’t simply overpowered by the weakened body it has infiltrated.
In most cases, Western countries lack enough of a stake to engage in this sort of activity. They’ll treat the surface, they dig out some of the most infected bits – but the amount of effort required to actually erase the infection is beyond them. For its part, Israel has long since decided that the infection cannot be treated. The investment – and the condemnation – was beyond it. Instead, Israel has tried to isolate the problem. Walls have been built. Missile defenses established. In a way, Israel has tried to wrap a bandage around the infected tissue and then – when that didn’t work – they have tried their best to amputate the Palestinian appendage.
As October 7th made clear, it has not worked.
It has not worked for Palestinians, and it has not worked for Israelis.
On the extremes, there are two formulas for dealing with the problem today. One is to erase Israel and the other is to erase Palestine. Neither will work.
The fundamental issues in Palestine are the same as those in Iraq or Somalia. Corruption and extremism have grown together in a codependent vicious circle. It would continue without Israel. There is nothing to suddenly reform the issues within Palestinian society. Just as Haitian rebels killing every white person the island didn’t free them from their own corruption, Palestine would not be freed even if every Jew was killed. To provide a viable home for Palestinians the kernel of civil society must be established – as it has been in other nations.
Beyond that, the erasure of Israel would threaten all neighboring countries just as strongly as it affects Israel itself. There’s a reason Egypt will accept virtually no Palestinian refugees. The government is afraid of the cultural illness the Palestinian would bring.
On the other hand, if Palestine were to be erased, an even more damaged Palestinian culture would continue to exist in other countries. At best, it would continue to be supported by UNRWA and Palestinians would continue not to be welcomed by their hosts countries. They would be left to fester in corrupt and increasingly extreme refugee camps. At worst, as has been seen at times in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, that culture would threaten already fragile local governments and societies and possibly replace them. As 9/11 showed, you don’t have to be next door to deliver terror. These Palestinians, though, would continue to be next door to Israel. Nothing would be solved by emptying their population from Gaza.
How can the situation be made better – for everybody involved? The answer comes down to the proper treatment of an infection.
First, dig out what you can. This is the ongoing military operation, including the removal of refugee camps. There should be no divide between ‘refugees’ and other Gazans. This process must be allowed to finish. If it isn’t allowed to do so, then Hamas will quickly reinfect all of Gaza and beyond. Egypt themselves should support this. Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and a threat to the Egyptian government. Not only should this be allowed to finish, the US and others should be encouraging Israel to finish as quickly as possible. The longer the effort takes, the more resentment is allowed to fester and the more pain is endured by the Palestinian society. It is like the wound is being cleaned without anesthetic – speed is itself important to the life of the patient. Our past 72 years ought to demonstrate that. As a part of the digging process, Israel can establish their own form of Truth Commissions, as I discussed in A Truly Free Palestine.
Second, apply antiseptic. Part of this is a temporary military occupation and the elimination of refugee camps, but the far more important part is establishing an actual law-based society. It doesn’t have to democratic – in fact, it shouldn’t be at first as I’ve written in A Truly Free Palestine. But it has to deliver justice. The paragon of a legal society in the Arab world is the UAE. They have no incentive to be bought off by aid dollars or local agents of corruption. The UAE should be invited to form a civil government. They can manage courts, routine policing and all other aspects of administration. It is in their interest to do so, as a counterweight to the existential threats they face from Iran and Qatar. Israel, by dint of the greater risk of local Israeli corruption, should minimize its involvement here.
The third stage is the grafting on of healthy tissue. This would take the form of local Palestinians managing bottom-up activities within the region. It can start with neighborhood civil courts. As societal milestones centered on a lack of corruption and violent extremism are demonstrated, greater and greater responsibilities would accrue to local Palestinians. In other words, the healthy tissue would take on a greater and greater role, displacing the need for ongoing external treatments. Yes, the society is tribal – but so is the UAE. Tribal and collective impulses can be harnessed on the road to independence. Eventually, a Palestinian state would be established in its own right. This should be the goal from the outset, but with the achievement of milestones as a prerequisite to it occurring.
Finally, growth agents would be applied – carefully. Sadly, Palestinian society does need aid, even though aid is inherently corrupting and dangerous. But rather than simply shipping in dollars or supplies which can be stolen and repurposed, this aid could take a fundamentally innovative form. External companies and countries could be invited to build and own infrastructure from roads to housing to farming. Along with those contracts would be the right of the local people and local government to buy out those properties. This would probably take the form of ‘rent-to-own.’ The opportunities for corruption would be minimized as government contracts wouldn’t determine who gets what. Instead, an open-bidding process (perhaps overseen by the likes of Singapore) would reward those foreign builders who offer the best terms to the local population. By creating an ownership culture – much as Singapore did – the population would be invested in a peaceful and prosperous future. As above, Israel should minimize its own involvement here.
The bogeyman in background of all of this is radical Islam. To many in the West, it is seen as an inevitability. The form of Islam practiced by Hamas or ISIS (or many Muslims in Europe) sees global conquest as a religious goal. But this is not the only form of Islam. Pictures of female professionals in Iran in the 1970s show that other movements can establish themselves. The challenge is often that those movements are themselves undermined by Western-induced corruption. The Shah wasn’t exactly the cleanest of men. While countries like Turkey are becoming increasingly extreme, technically extremist countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to create space for a more moderate vision. Unfortunately, so much of Western intervention in Muslim countries has encouraged corruption and its twin, extremism. There is a chance of changing this trajectory. Those who feel Islam cannot be rescued can offer nothing better than this. After all, no matter what they do, Islam is not going to disappear.
Since the Roman era, the local population of this region has never ruled itself. Whether Jewish or Muslim or Christian, they have been under the thumb of foreign powers – from Egypt to Syria to the Ottomans to the British. The establishment of Israel was the first break in this pattern in almost 2,000 years. As Israel’s short history has already shown, the process of learning to rule yourself after such a long period without self-governance is not straightforward. Israel has suffered terribly from her own corruption on both a State and local level. Even today, when corruption in Israel has vastly receded, 80% of businesses in Israel’s north pay protection money to an overwhelmingly Arab mafia. Israel has proactively (and somewhat successfully) moved against Jewish corruption. But corruption in the Arab sector, and within Palestine, has almost been encouraged to grow. With it, we’ve seen the growth of extremism.
For a prosperous and free future, both corruption and extremism must be brought to an end and a new vision – of a law-abiding future – must be established. All of this starts rapid and overwhelming erasure of Hamas in Rafah.
What we were doing wasn’t working. It wasn’t working for Israelis or Palestinians.
It is time for something better.
They may seem trite, but I believe few things are as indicative of a society’s health as the playgrounds it builds for its children.
Cover image: Rafah: 5 Years after Israeli Withdrawal. By DYKT Mohigan – P1150181, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69483740