In 1995, I moved from a comfortable life in America to Ramallah,
Palestine, to invest in the most American of businesses there. I was
instrumental in bringing Coca-Cola to the Middle East in the early
1980s; after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed I decided to launch the
Coke franchise in the West Bank and Gaza.
Over the last decade, the business has grown. Today, Coca-Cola employs hundreds of Palestinians and sells 10 million cases of Coke a year.
As a Palestinian American, this was more than a moneymaking venture. Each gleaming bottle, with that red Coca-Cola swirl in both Arabic and English, would be a miniature ambassador from America. And each potential investor who saw that Coke was successful might decide to invest as well. It seemed the perfect strategy: to promote American interests while helping to build an economy that could serve as the foundation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.
Following the peace accords, scores of other Palestinian Americans moved to the West Bank and Gaza. Professors came to teach at universities. Doctors came to help modernize the healthcare system and treat patients. Artists came to exhibit and perform. Other business professionals came to invest, modernize the economy and create jobs. Each, in their way, wanted to help build an independent Palestine. Each served as the real ambassadors of America, so different from the American-made Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets Israel uses to rain destruction on the Palestinian economy, cities and villages.
But Israel has decided that we Americans are not welcome. Many, like me, have lived in the West Bank for more than a decade. Unlike American Jews — or Jews from anywhere — who can receive instant citizenship upon arrival, we are unable to obtain residency. Instead, we Christian and Muslim Palestinians must rely on our American passports, renewing our tourist visas every three months. A hassle, yes, but the only way to stay in Palestine, often in the homes our families have inhabited for generations.
Since Hamas assumed government authority after democratic elections this year, Israel has begun to deny Palestinian Americans the right to enter. We are left to wonder why.
This new policy could be another turn of the screw to pressure Hamas. It could be manufactured as a painless concession for future negotiations. It could be one more tactic in Israel's drive — which began in 1948 with the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians — to empty as much land of as many Palestinians as possible.
We do not know the reason for denying entry to Palestinian Americans. But we do know the result. In addition to breaking families apart — for example one spouse with children in the West Bank, and the other unable to return from visits to the U.S. — it is discouraging investors. It is driving out the very people the U.S. State Department, the World Bank and other international organizations encouraged to return. We are the ones building businesses, creating jobs and inspiring hope for a better future.
Using the pretext of security, Israeli policies of home demolitions, land confiscation, restrictions on movement and construction of the separation wall have choked the Palestinian economy. According to the U.N., more than 540 checkpoints and other structures impede movement throughout the West Bank, and crossings into Gaza are rarely open. Gaza represents 30% of the Palestinian economy. Yet we cannot ship goods from the West Bank to Gaza. And Gaza cannot import raw materials for processing, even though it possesses a talented labor force. Israel has also been refusing to turn over nearly $55 million a month (now totaling roughly $400 million) in Palestinian tax revenue. With the cutoff of international aid, this has led to a humanitarian catastrophe. Since March, Palestinian Authority employees — about one-quarter of the labor force — have not received their salaries.
Israel will not gain security by creating Mogadishu next to Silicon Valley. Only an open and thriving Palestinian economy can lay the foundation for a sustainable peace.
Our humanitarian crisis is not the result of a natural catastrophe. There was no tsunami, earthquake or drought. We helped to build nations. We have the natural resources and human capital to build a thriving, stable Palestinian economy as well. We do not need international handouts. We need the free movement of people and goods. We need unrestricted gateways between the occupied Palestinian territory and the rest of the world.
American policy makers have tremendous influence with Israel. They should use it to insist on freedom of movement of people and goods, and to maintain access for Palestinian Americans and Palestinians with other foreign passports to continue to play a role in economic development. A vibrant Palestinian economy serves the interests of all — Palestinians, Israelis and Americans.
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