Israel’s checkpoint ‘terminal’ in northern Bethlehem welcomes those leaving the city to ‘Jerusalem’ – even though you’re still in the West Bank. There is no ‘Palestine’ in most Western atlases – but you can see the pre-1948 map in cramped homes in refugee camps and the offices of bureaucrats. ‘Palestine’ may now often be used to refer simply to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), but this is contested by the Palestinian refugees expelled by Israel over 60 years ago, as well as the Palestinian minority inside Israel who remained.

Since 1967, the West Bank and Gaza Strip (or OPT) have been under Israeli military occupation. Soon after Israeli rule began, the state began authorizing and facilitating the creation of Jewish settlements in the OPT, in contravention of international law. Over time, large amounts of private and public land in the West Bank have been expropriated, in order to expand the settlements, create bypass roads, and reserve areas for Israeli military training. The Palestinian economy in the OPT became highly dependent on Israel’s economy, providing a workforce and a market that could be exploited or sidelined according to fluctuating political priorities.

The Palestinian National Authority (PA), established in the 1990s and controlled by Fatah (the largest surviving wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization), was granted limited autonomy in 17 per cent of the West Bank, in territorially non-contiguous enclaves. During the height of the Second Intifada (2000-03), the PA’s infrastructure was badly hit by Israeli military action, with the economy thrown into a deep depression. Long-awaited Palestinian elections in January 2006 saw Hamas win a parliamentary majority, only to have its victory met by opposition from Israel, the international community, and elements of Fatah. The tensions between Fatah and Hamas led to the latter forcibly taking control of the Gaza Strip in summer 2007, pre-empting a suspected coup attempt.

Repeated attempts to negotiate a path to ‘national unity’ have ended in failure. In the West Bank, the current PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad – a former World Bank official – has focused on securing modest economic gains and establishing ‘law and order’ in the larger cities. The clampdown on criminal gangs has been welcomed but there is widespread dismay at the extent to which Palestinian security forces are suppressing internal dissent, as well as closely co-operating with the Israeli military.

Many Palestinians feel things have never been worse than they are now. The international peace process shows no sign of progress, even under the new Obama administration, and Israel continues its occupation with impunity. The Palestinian political leadership is divided and discredited. East Jerusalem is increasingly cut off from the West Bank, in a clear indication of the Israeli political consensus that the city will remain the ‘united, Jewish’ capital. The Gaza Strip remains under a state of siege, with Israel and Egypt severely limiting who and what can come in and out. Its residents were also subjected to a massive assault by the Israeli military in December 2008, with 1,400 Palestinians killed, and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip is unshaken, though the pressures from the ongoing siege, as well as the emergence of Salafist-leaning Islamist groups, have led elements in Hamas to attempt an incremental ‘Islamization’ of social space in Gaza.

Palestinian flag

Yet there are a few chinks of light. Palestinian society as a whole continues to display resilience and cohesion, and the well-developed democratic traditions of civil society are a vital reservoir of resourceful strength. In many West Bank villages, a nonviolent resistance movement targeting the Wall and settlements has established itself and is gradually attracting international attention. Worldwide, the Palestine solidarity movement has witnessed significant growth, notably in response to the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in 2005.


Young Tunisian women studying photography at technical college.

Photo by Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos

When Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali won a fifth term in office in October 2009, with 90 per cent of the vote, even the BBC felt moved to comment that during the election campaign the ‘only suspense’ was over the exact percentage by which Ben Ali would be declared victorious. A country lauded for its economic progress, and a popular choice for European tourists seeking a low-priced package holiday on the Mediterranean, it was also named the seventh worst country to be a blogger in 2009.

Flag of Tunisia

Ben Ali took over from Habib Bourguiba in a coup in 1987, and is only the second head of state since Tunisia’s independence from France was won in 1956. Despite initially raising hopes of a political culture more tolerant of dissent, Ben Ali’s rule has been maintained by the usual apparatus of a police state and there has been no more than a sham procedural democracy. The parliamentary system is designed to give the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party a guaranteed and overwhelming majority. In the run-up to elections, the regime’s critics are subject to severe intimidation and violence, while the opposition parties that are permitted to operate cannot compete against the state’s publicity machine for Ben Ali and the RCD.

Ben Ali has used the banner of the ‘war on terror’ as an excuse to clamp down on opponents and criminalize Islamist political expression, a strategy boosted when a violent Salafi group claimed responsibility for a bombing in 2002. Those working in the media have also been hard hit, with Tunisia a leader in the Arab world for the number of journalists it arrests. In recent years, the internet and social networking sites have become useful tools for opposition activists in a variety of Middle East countries. Aware of this, the state keeps close tabs on the population’s internet use, while banning certain sites like YouTube. It is true that there are some success stories. Women’s rights in Tunisia are far more consolidated in both law and practice than in other Arab countries. Yet even this apparent ‘progressive’ development is complicated by the link between the discourse on women’s rights and the anti-democratic repression of Islamists.

Analysts sometimes ‘offset’ the appalling state of human rights and political freedom in Tunisia by pointing to the country’s economic progress compared to its regional neighbours. While there have been undeniable gains over the last decade when it comes to poverty alleviation and key quality of life indicators, it is too simplistic to talk of an economic success story. Ben Ali’s Tunisia may win praise from the IMF for ‘structural reforms’ and ‘open’ markets, but the privatization of state-owned assets and land has been less than transparent and has led to wealth accumulation by a privileged few. This serious corruption problem has been notoriously characterized by the rising power of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, whose family now enjoys substantial business interests in areas as diverse as media, tourism and agriculture.

Tunisia continues to enjoy close economic and political ties with the US and Europe and benefits from billions of dollars of foreign investment. As Ben Ali continues to provide ‘stability’ – code for opportunities for foreign capital and no room for Islamist dissent – so the West is happy to keep doing business with the regime. The only question mark is over post-Ben Ali Tunisia – the leader is 73 years old, and talk has begun on who may succeed him. One of those rumoured as being groomed for power is his son-in-law, Sakher al-Materi, an entrepreneur with a seat in parliament. It would seem that, in more ways than one, the foreseeable future is likely to involve business as usual.

Ben White

Map of Tunisia

Subscribe   Ethical Shop