Summary: touted as a pathway to statehood for Palestine, free industrial zones in the West Bank are another weapon in Israel’s colonisation arsenal that have become even more potent with the extremist regime that Benjamin Netanyahu has pulled together.
We thank Mariam Irfan for today’s newsletter. An Arab Digest intern, Mariam recently completed her Masters degree at SOAS. Her dissertation focused on the effect industrial zones being built in the West Bank are having on the political landscape in Palestine.
“(Jericho Industrial and Agricultural Park) serves as a catalyst in the development of a viable Palestinian state through agro-industry promotion, enhancing trade, encouraging investment, and job creation, in areas where land is threatened of confiscation and settlement.” Jaipark.com
On websites, or in glossy brochures, industrial zones in the West Bank have been described in terms of socio-economic development that will contribute to economic growth and state institutions, whilst helping the local Palestinian community secure their land and livelihoods.
Yet over a decade later neither seems to be true. Instead, Palestinians find themselves at the mercy of an Israeli leadership that is split between a pragmatic right and an extreme right, both of which completely reject the idea of Palestinian statehood and have rapidly accelerated settlement building projects, even in areas that these zones were supposed to protect, such as the now besieged city of Jericho.
When it was created during the Oslo process, the Palestinian Authority (PA) sought to establish industrial zones. This was in response to donor recommendations and partly in line with the neoliberal agenda it had embarked on. This process only took full effect after the PA’s split with Hamas, and when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad came into power in 2007. Since then, the PA has worked with the Israeli authorities, whilst collaborating with international donors such as Japan, Turkey and Germany, as well as international institutions, such as the World Bank, to kick-start industrial zones. To date, four zones have been authorised; Jericho Agro-Industrial Park (JAIP), Jenin Free Trade Zone, Bethlehem Multi-Disciplinary Industrial Estate and Tarqumia Industrial Estate.
Industrial zones refer to a legal mechanism by which the state designates an area deregulated from normalised commercial and tax laws and provides it with special privileges including duty free arrangements, reduced administrative costs and few workers’ rights. One way of conceptualising these zones is through the concept of an “economic zone of exception”, meaning the exceptionality of these zones is that the existing laws of the country are suspended. Together, these factors foster a climate designed to attract foreign investment and boost the national economy. They are intended as a temporary arrangement, one that allows the state to experiment with new market ideologies while providing economic benefits and creating jobs.
In the context of Palestine, it is counterproductive to analyse these zones within the perimeters of their walls and to present them as segregated from the wider political landscape. The West Bank, and the PA’s rule, can be seen as a “political zone of exception” in itself. If much of the West Bank is marked by the presence of an exceptional form of governance, which lacks its own currency, has no control over borders or airspace and is operating within a military occupation, then questions need to be asked as to how this particular political circumstance co-exists with the reality on the ground? How does a “state” without its own currency and under military occupation by another state trial, with market politics and through a temporal spatial scheme, a comprehensive economic experiment and hope to achieve positive results?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is that it’s not possible. Rather than being temporary experimental sites, industrial zones in Palestine are cementing the occupation by pacifying it. When these two zones of exception merge, they change the spatial, both in a physical sense but also in terms of legal and diplomatic procedures that involve re-drawing the political space, essentially re-territorialising the land. However, this re-territorialisation process should not be mistaken for securing Palestinian land or rights because these infrastructural projects are deep in the politics of colonisation and are contested through a power dynamic in which the Israeli state always has the upper hand. And once the industrial zones are built, the contested nature disappears from view and is sublimated into a political language of markets. Thus the zones intertwine the occupation into the very fabric of their construction. As Dr Alaa Tartir a policy advisor to Al-Shabaka (the Palestinian Policy Network) has noted industrial parks such as Jericho’s “were not built to challenge the occupation or colonisation, but to impose an economic peace between colonised and colonisers. This reality cannot be masked by talking about profits, economic efficiencies, and other technical jargon.”
Industrial zones in the West Bank are in line with Israel’s latest policy contained in the “shrinking the conflict” model, a revised version of Netanyahu’s economic peace, both of which essentially turn the Occupied Territories into a laboratory of trial and error while prolonging the occupation with as little resistance from the Palestinians as possible. Foundational to the strategy is a belief that Palestinians can be appeased into silence through economic incentives that create an illusion of statehood and normalise life under the occupation.
That it’s been more than a decade since all of the industrial zones projects were initiated (some even date back to the Oslo process) and only JAIP is operating with 12 Palestinian companies, speaks to the fact that this was a strategy that was never intended to work in the long term interests of Palestinians. It is telling, for example, that it took more than 6 years of negotiations between Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Japan just to authorise a 3 km road needed to connect JAIP to the Jordanian border.
As Palestinians face the most far-right government in Israel’s history, one with senior ministers who openly espouse racist positions and call for a full and immediate annexation, the international community can no longer hide behind economic policies that only serve to enhance the continued colonisation of Palestine. It needs to address the occupation head on and acknowledge the true intention of stratagems like the industrial zones; that they are designed as a mechanism to further pursue illegal colonisation of the West Bank and to dismantle any hope for a two-state solution.