In the Spring of 2006, Tom Bruggere, Mike Maerz, Fred Trullinger, Paul Dudley Hart and I took a trip to Palestine as part of a Mercy Corps fact finding trip. Tom's son TC and Fred's son Edge also came along.
All of us had been supporters of Mercy Corps's "Phoenix Fund," an entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur fund started by Paul in 2005. The Fund had helped five different pilot projects get started around the world. One of them was in Palestine, so we wanted to see how the group was doing and what we could learn from their experiences.
Palestine and Israel is a fantastically complicated area. In our short 10 days we but scraped the surface of the conflict. Still, I learned a lot.
In the Jerusalem and West Bank area we were accompanied by May Dowani; in Jordon by Marta Colburn, both of whom work for Mercy Corps.
I've shown a few pictures below. The rest are in a photo album on Google+.
To look at the "Security Wall" constructed by Israel, we were the guests of the local office of the United Nations's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While I have no doubt that the office sympathized with the displaced Palestinians, we also made a point of hearing from the Israeli side as well. I left with a profound cynicism over the true motives of the Wall.
The Wall is a 700+ km barrier made of concrete, barbed wire, and electronic monitors, constructed by Israel, ostensibly as a security barrier against terrorist incursions. While there is little doubt that it has achieved its security goals, the wall has also been used as a land use weapon by the Israelis to undermine the economic viability of the Palestinians. We saw many examples of this. Click here for a 618kb PDF file on its humanitarian impact.
Like most people, before I went I had envisioned the wall as largely running down the "Green Line," that is the 1949 Armistice Line border between Israel and Jordan (the border before the 1967 war). While long sections do run along this border, they total only 20% of the total wall length — most of the Wall makes deep incursions into the West Bank in an effort to capture many of the Jewish settlements built within the territory. Here's a PDF report (436 kB) that shows the spaghetti mess that makes up the Wall.
These deep incursions are like intestinal diverticula. They loop and protrude deep into the West Bank, surrounding the Israeli settlements. One can argue over the "legality" of the settlements themselves, but the practical effect of the Wall is to create many barriers to the free movement of the Palestinians. For example, there is an extension of the wall between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, making it not only impossible for Palestinian living in the East Jerusalem area to get to work, but it is no longer practical for tourists from Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem in a single day. As a result, when we visited Bethlehem, it was practically empty. We were the only ones in the InterContinental Hotel for lunch — no one was staying there.
The Soap Ladies
One of the five pilot projects funded by the Phoenix Fund was to train some women in the art of making products from olive oil. Women in conservative communities often do not have the opportunities to work outside their homes. In Palestine, with its high unemployment rate, the additional income can make a big difference. So, our thinking was to bring the job to them, in the form of skills to make products from indigenous raw materials. Furthermore, we felt that olive oil and soap products branded "Palestine" would fetch a premium in boutique markets.
The Fund was used to train 40 young women in how to make soap and herbs from olive oil, as well as sales and marketing. Two of these women were particularly promising with their entrepreneurial skills, so part of the grant was used to purchase production equipment, which they took home. We visited them to see how they were doing.
They had certainly cranked out a lot of soap! At an exhibition in Kuwait, they had sold hundreds of pieces of soap and olive oil bottles, as well as 1000 kg of dried herbs! Unfortunately, their costs were also very high, as they had to travel to Kuwait.
The women were motivated, hard working, and had learned their skills well. Unfortunately, about this time Mercy Corps had to pull out their local representation, and so they had been left adrift to learn about marketing and sales the hard way. It didn't help that Israel also made it very difficult and expensive to export products, further increasing their costs. We haven't given up, but one of the lessons we learned, unfortunately at their expense, is the importance of stable local representation for these long projects.
Worth adding as a footnote: three of the other Phoenix Fund pilot projects were going much better, precisely because they did have this local representation. This included Mongolia, Guatemala, and Kyrgyzstan. I'll try to write them up some other time.
It's hard to spend much time in the Palestine area without seeing signs of the conflict everywhere. I left with a feeling that the well-meaning Group of Four "Road Map for Peace" was doomed. Those on the ground had long since given up and were resigned to a conflict, a very violent one, sometime in the future. I made a point of talking to local Palestinian youth, particularly those in their late teens and twenties, and walked away dismayed at the anger and violence bottled up within. They were beyond listening.
Perhaps even more frightening, is that even the very old, had been radicalized. In particular, we talked with the director of a local pharmacy supply company, a Palestinian perhaps in his early 60s and with a lot to lose, who had become a Hamas supporter.
When we returned, Tom, Fred, Mike and I were concerned enough with what we saw that we made a point of visiting our two senators, Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden. Our main messages were that, first, the wall has become an economic weapon, designed to make life economically unviable for the Palestinians. Second, that with the boycott of Hamas and the resultant inability for the Palestinian government to pay its many employees, there was a coming humanitarian crisis, a crisis that we needed to be prepared for.
Unfortunately, the soap ladies continue to fend for themselves, as Mercy Corps still does not have any local representation.