Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman. He does business consulting as Applied Information Management (AIM), specializing in business development with a niche focus on the information technology sector and start-ups. He is also the Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. Until recently, he served on the board of trustees of Birzeit University and was the University’s treasurer. He is also a Director at the Arab Islamic Bank and the community foundation Dalia Association. He writes frequently on Palestinian affairs and his work is posted at www.epalestine.com.
FMEP: There is always a great deal of talk about improving the Palestinian economy, sometimes as a substitute for a political resolution to the Israeli occupation, sometimes as a precursor to it. How do you see your work with Palestinian entrepreneurs in the context of the occupation and building a better Palestinian future?
Sam Bahour: My understanding of the role of business and economic development, where possible under continued and prolonged Israeli military occupation, is one of non-violent resistance. The ultimate aim is creating employment for Palestinians under occupation so Palestinians who are here stay here. I see the private sector’s role in this effort as one of leadership, which is a big ask given that the private sector typically needs a stable ecosystem to operate in. Israeli occupation and a still nascent Palestinian government does not provide this stability just yet. Our case is one where the extra responsibility the private sector has toward society is more acute than elsewhere. I articulated this approach in an Al-Shabaka Policy Brief titled, Defeating Dependency, Creating a Resistance Economy and the article Palestine’s Private Sector: Two Decades of Disappointment.
This approach should not be underestimated given that the agenda of our occupier, since the founding of Israel and more so after the occupation began in 1967, has been to take as much Palestinian geography as possible with the least amount of Palestinian demography on it. So in my view economic activity serves a very political goal of keeping our young in Palestine and engaged with livelihoods so when they resist the occupation, which they will naturally do, they have the means to do it non-violently. Our occupier makes the effort to create jobs a Herculean feat. They have total control over all of our strategic economic assets, like land, water, movement, energy, frequencies, etc. The alternative to acting in the economic sphere is to surrender to total Israeli dominance over every aspect of our life. This we can never accept.
FMEP: The idea that the occupation stifles Palestinian economic growth is often brought up. Crucially, it is often used to rebut the notion that economic growth is already happening, when much of that is due to outside aid. How, specifically, does the occupation stifle Palestinian economic growth? What are the dynamics on the ground that cause that stifling and is there any way to combat them while the occupation still exists?
SB: I will one day write a book about how comprehensive this occupation has been by way of blocking our ability to have an economic life and how resilient Palestinians have been throughout history in addressing this horrific reality. Israel acts in total and blatant violation of the international laws governing military occupations. They also act in broad daylight, while the international community watches on and, many times, underwrites Israel’s efforts to destroy our economic ability. That noted, I take issue with the entire concept of “growth” under occupation. We are not now, and have never been, in a growth mode. We are in a survival mode. Anyone who misses this point will be lost in academic discussions of global economic indicators that apply to sovereign states (i.e. GDP, GNP) and lose focus on the source of our economic suppression, which is the boot of Israeli military occupation on our necks. This was the colossal mistake that former Palestinian prime minister Salaam Fayyad made and which ultimately saw him walk away from office in defeat.
I make a point that there are two broad kinds of efforts in dealing with the economy, economic development and economic activity. Economic development, since we ae aiming to build a state, requires all the strategic economic assets that Israel fully controls. As a result, it is extremely difficult to make progress on development while under occupation. However, economic activity, such as starting firms, exporting goods and services, linking directly to external markets, etc. is permitted and we should make the most of this ability. I laid out this argument in the Guardian back in 2010 in a piece entitled Growth that Palestine can believe in.
But to more directly answer your question about an example of how Israel stifles our economy, I point you to this recent Al-Shabaka Policy Brief, ICT: The Shackled Engine of Palestine’s Development which shows how one sector—specifically, information and communication technology, which is a strategically important one for our young population— is impacted by Israeli actions
FMEP: As a Palestinian-American, you have a particular insight into how US policy affects the Palestinian people and leadership. As the Obama administration winds down its days, what do you expect from an administration headed by Hillary Clinton?
SB: Here I’ll need to answer twice, wearing each of my caps, the American one and the Palestinian one. As an American I expect from a Hillary Clinton administration the exact same thing I expected from every administration that proceeded her: for the United States to use all its leverage to bring the Israeli occupation to an end. This means discontinuing the arming of Israel and stopping the obscene amount of foreign aid we grant Israel, as well as acting politically on the global stage to hold Israel accountable for their actions. That’s the American in me speaking and I’ve made the same case recently to the Obama administration in several articles such as President Obama, recognize Palestine now! in The Hill and How Obama Can Save The Two-State Solution Before He Leaves Office in TPM Café, just to list a few.
As a Palestinian, I expect absolutely nothing from a Hillary Clinton administration or the institution called the United States of America. The US has proved far beyond a reasonable doubt which side it has chosen to be on in this conflict. Its blind support for Israel is pathetic and should embarrass anyone who thinks the US acts with a sense of peace based on justice. I made this case with my Boston-based colleague, Geoffrey Lewis, in this article as I followed the embarrassing Presidential race, Both Republicans and Democrats Regressed on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Now What? and in one called US fueling Israel’s civil war as well.
FMEP: It is almost a cliché at this point that Palestinian leadership, including both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas, are doing very poorly at advancing Palestinian goals. Do you agree with that assessment and, if you do, do you see any prospect for a new leadership, perhaps one rooted in Palestinian civil society, emerging?
SB: This question is multilayered and does not have a swift answer. In a general sense, yes, both of these parties have failed, both in their political programs and in their operational effectiveness. However, the greater failure is their inability to engage the larger Palestinian population, those who are not affiliated with them and those who happen to not live under military occupation. Those sectors actually constitute the majority of the Palestinian people. There can be no excuse for Palestinians to not have an operating political system. I address this point rather boldly in this article, Resetting Palestine’s political system, which was also translated into Arabic and published in the local newspaper. That caused a heated debate among many. I also addressed the issue of new Palestinian leadership by looking in an unexpected place: Israel. That article was published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, entitled Palestinian Political Activism Could Push Toward a One-state Solution.