Fake Progress vs. Real Progress in Palestine

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After former World Bank President James Wolfensohn had taken over in 2005 as chairman of the Quartet a representative body comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations and focused on moving the cause of Israel-Palestine peace forward, he once said to me that the only way to know whether progress was being achieved is if we saw Palestinian produced strawberries finding their way to breakfast tables in Europe.  Wolfensohn was so focused on making business work for Palestinians that he invested his own money in trying to retrofit operations at the Karni Crossing.

Ultimately, Israeli indifference and in some cases strong opposition to trying to make this effort work -- and the lack of trained Palestinian infrastructure managers resulted in strawberries rotting en masse at the shipping terminal.

Wolfensohn's effort and dedication to the Palestinian cause has always fascinated and troubled me because he knew that political optics were not enough -- that one needed to link on the ground changes to political cosmetics to secure change.  Frequently, perhaps mostly, what is happening in the Palestinian street and what is taking place between top-tier Israeli and Palestinian politicos are not in sync.

Sometimes, leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah have pretended that things were moving in positive directions while the institutionalized humiliation of Palestinians increased, for example when the number of checkpoints and transportation blocks in the Occupied Territories surged upward, as they did after the Bush administration initiated Annapolis conference Israel-Palestine peace effort.

Today, it's difficult to see any serious international efforts focused on resolving Palestine's standoff with Israel moving forward.  While the Obama team has had a number of key foreign policy and national security successes -- the Israel-Palestine mess which was a defining challenge Obama accepted for himself has been a disaster. 

Obama administration envoy George Mitchell has resigned.  Hillary Clinton is filling her time with China stuff -- not Israel/Palestine questions.  National Security Council senior director for the region Dennis Ross has just announced he is leaving the Obama operation -- having neither succeeded in bringing his friend Benjamin Netanyahu into any sort of constructive line and also not resolving the Iran challenge which was part of his portfolio.

Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has taken a page out of Netanyahu's book and has begun to completely ignore the requests and expectations of the United States and has filed for full state recognition with the United Nations Security Council and has succeeded in having Palestine voted in as a member of UNESCO.  In an odd situation in which the US Congress decided to hold American interests hostage to the behavior of others, the US is now de-funding and withdrawing from UNESCO because of the inclusion of Palestine.  This same pattern may now unravel American membership in other UN organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organization, the IAEA, the World Health Organization, and many United Nations entities in which Palestine plans to seek membership.

A counter-productive US law passed in 1994 requires the US withdraw from and stop funding operations of any UN entity which accepts Palestinian membership.  It's incredible that the US Congress is holding US interests hostage to the behavior of other countries -- but that is the state of play today.

As UNESCO begins to figure out how it is going to operate without US membership again -- which is such a travesty but nonetheless a reality -- it's important to take a look at what is going on to help and assist Palestinian society and culture on the ground.  If we were taking a James Wolfensohn lens to the local level, what would we look for?

Hani-Masri1.jpgOne of the micro-successes with which I have recently become familiar is the Nablus-based "Tomorrow's Youth Organization" (TYO).  This group which has a 501(c)3, non-profit affiliate in the US essentially focuses on assisting women and children in Palestine improve their options.  Women get assistance in conceptualizing how to take skills they have and developing them into small businesses; or they get training in new skills they help give them options in what otherwise are very constrained and limited social and community environments.  Their children are exposed to ideas and games and people who help open their eyes to opportunity beyond the camps in which they are growing up.

Many of those who work in these camps are young American women -- who have up til now not been harassed by Islamic conservatives and who operate with increasingly stronger support of the 'bosses' running camps of Palestinian refugees.

220px-Cherie_Blair_in_Trento.jpgI have met a number of those who teach in these camps and at the TYO Center in Nablus, which was founded by Palestinian-American leader Hani Masri with support from other leading Masri family members inside Palestine.  Cherie Blair and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women have become strong supporters of TYO.  Former President Bill Clinton last year headlined a major fundraising event for TYO in Washington which also featured Ms. Blair as well as former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe.  US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer also traveled to Nablus, Palestine to visit TYO and see the training that young, American volunteers were doing in the camps.

The visits of these high and mighty types are useful for recognition of something important happening on the ground.  But what is happening in Nablus did not wait for their approval or affirmation.  The interesting things that are unfolding at TYO have occurred despite recognition from official Washington or from the officials in Turtle Bay and have almost been done to spite those involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Hani Masri -- who has managed to simultaneously manage close friendships over the years with Yasser Arafat and with Bill and Hillary Clinton but who also knows most of the elder leaders of Israel for decades -- became disgusted with the distraction of an always unsatisfying, always incomplete peace process.  He felt that not only were Palestinian rights being trampled by this process but the machinery of peacemaking was requiring Palestinians to forfeit their human dignity.  So, he largely abandoned any support of or funding of peace effort conferences, white papers, or anything connected.

Instead, Masri -- whom I have come to know -- became focused on how to work to instill women and children with self-confidence and options in the communities in which they live.  He has gone micro -- and works to avoid the false hopes of a macro-solution to the peace process.

One TYO participant named Heba, a divorcee with a young daughter, has taken part in the "Fostering Women Entrepreneurs in Nablus (FWEN) program, implemented by the Cherie Blair Foundation in cooperation with TYO.  She and her partner co-founded a company called "H2 Fashion" which provides traditional Palestinian emroidery with modern twists.  Heba also volunteers as a part time teacher in TYO's early childhood classes.

There are numerous cases of women who got their first taste of education and confidence and skill-enhancing training as well as children who never had any stimulation and opportunities presented to them beyond the tough, survivalist terrain of the camps before their time at TYO.

I asked the TYO for data on how many people had run through the Nablus operation.  From spring 2008 through the summer of 2011, TYO has benefited 1,414 children ages 4-8; 1,872 children from ages 9-16.  The operation has 474 volunteers between the ages of 18-22 from local univesities -- and 196 women have participated in programs, indirectly benefiting more than 20,000 community members.  These data have been provided by TYO, which has since opened an affiliated operation in Beirut, Lebanon.

Only a dozen paid staff members operate in the Nablus TYO operation at any given time.  Programs are supported by approximately 100 local volunteers who work an average of ten hourss per week supplemented by five international interns who work sixty hours per week.

In other words, there is a constant blending of local and international staff and volunteers teaching hundreds upon hundreds of women and children inside Palestine.

There may be critics of TYO's work out there -- but I haven't been able to find them.  I reached out to representatives I know from Hamas and on a background basis was told by a Hamas official that he has respect for Hani Masri and respect for what he has done to help improve the lives of women and children.  I found this very surprising given that Masri has little respect for Hamas -- and wants people to be able to full determine their own religion and their own clothing and own life choices.   The Hamas official continued, however, that what impressed him about Masri's work is that he didn't place hope in either Palestine's Fatah or Hamas leadership or in Israel, or for that matter US negotiators, to produce an environment to get things done.  He moved forward despite these things.

Thus, in contrast to James Wolfensohn's strawberries to market frustration, there is reason given the case of Tomorrow's Youth Orgnazation to hope that some things are possible on the ground inside Palestine despite the rest of the world deciding to tie itself in knots politically over the future of the Palestinian state and Palestine/Israel relations.

I don't share the view that abandoning Israel-Palestine efforts makes sense.  I believe that both sides will pay enormous future costs, as will the United States, if a two state solution is not achieved -- and I don't think that cases like TYO solve all of the on the ground problems for the Palestinian people.  But there is a model here that rarely gets attention and deserves more support and a spotlight given the irresponsibility and failures of the strategic, negotiating  class operating at a much higher level than the women in the Nablus camps.

It is extraordinarily stupid and self-defeating for the United States to be withdrawing from UNESCO -- an organization that should in fact be partnering with TYO and its successful operation in Nablus and now Beirut.  But the world does not stop, any longer, when America makes a bad call.

America may become less and less relevant to the Israel-Arab conflict but some Americans and Europeans and others -- like Hani Masri in this case and those he has drawn in like Cherie Blair, Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton, and scores of young American and Palestinian volunteers -- can still matter and push the needle forward for people who are otherwise being trampled on and neglected by Middle East and American officialdom.