Twenty-First Century Palestinian Development Studies

VOL. 45


No. 4
P. 7
Twenty-First Century Palestinian Development Studies
Bringing It All Back Home—From Beirut to Washington to Palestine
JUST AS MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES has become an established academic discipline in recent decades, so have some universities introduced degrees in Palestine studies. The library of scholarship produced—in all areas of the humanities by all sides to a confrontation spanning a century—is vast, and the contentious nature of much of it persistent. Hence the imperative and rationale for the emergence of a discipline of Palestine studies seems evident, notwithstanding the risks inherent in the issues concerned becoming objects of study, instead of real manifestations of an ongoing struggle for liberation and justice. Within that broad theme, over the past thirty years (if not more) an extensive literature has flourished under the rubric of Palestinian development studies, covering economic, social, governance, spatial and infrastructural, cultural, and other domains of development.
If the (hypothetical) library shelves for that subdiscipline were to be organized chronologically, there would be perhaps one shelf of mostly Palestinian authors and journals dating from the 1970s until the early 1990s. These would be mainly in Arabic, in simple black-and-white printing, produced by institutions affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in its capacity as leader of the national liberation struggle, alongside reports by United Nations agencies, as well as some work by Israeli academics and bodies. By contrast, I would imagine the literature for the period since Oslo to require many sagging shelves to retain the flood of International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, UN, Palestinian, Israeli, and international reports, as well as the books, journals, statistical, and other publications, mainly in English and with glossy printing, churned out since 1993 in the supposedly twin causes of Palestinian development and the peace process.
However, in terms of both substance and timeliness, a new shelf would be needed for post-2010 literature on Palestinian development, populated by a somewhat younger, radical, and impatient generation of heterodox and activist scholars that departs from, indeed renounces, the preceding trend in studying the realities of Palestinian development. While drawing on the earliest traditions of national liberation social science, these voices have explicitly challenged the prevailing narratives of so-called peace building, including the neoliberal economic policies that underpin much of the post-Oslo literature on Palestinian development. They seek to make their scholarship meaningful not only academically but also politically, on the ground so to speak. In doing so, they have brought back to Palestinian social sciences a renewed sense of realism, resistance, and conceptual rigor and innovation. That has been largely absent since the PLO renounced armed struggle in favor of an openended negotiation process to nowhere, and intellectual and academic elites bought into the identity politics, rights-based approaches to development, and good-governance mythology that have infused development studies globally for as many years as Oslo has locked the Palestinian people into a permanent confrontation with colonialism and oppression.
I am increasingly encouraged that there is indeed a new movement in Palestinian development scholarship already correcting the historical record that was distorted by two decades of intellectual collusion with the political imperatives of the peace process and “state-building” agenda, instead of scholarship engaging with the real challenges of national and societal liberation. Through careful research, attention to pertinent theory and empirical realities, abandoning failed intellectual orthodoxies and embracing the agenda of the mass of people, some of these new Palestinian historians and social scientists are slowly and without fanfare carving out a niche and platforms for themselves. They are injecting their fresh ideas and committed scholarship into an otherwise moribund body of literature that has focused on how Palestinians can improve themselves, their institutions, and laws, and safeguard their quality of life without challenging the status quo of permanent occupation and ever-expanding settler colonialism. The conventional wisdom remains committed to the notion that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is part of the solution, rather than increasingly the problem as most of these scholars would contend. This in turn is sowing the seeds for bringing back to center stage a new form of liberation scholarship dedicated not solely to the national struggle that has been sidelined in Palestinian politics and intellectual life for decades but to also emphasizing its inherent links to class and anti-imperialist struggle.
The pioneering research being pursued by these new Palestinian scholars and scholars of Palestine (in the humanities and social sciences especially) is well illustrated by the four articles published here in this first-ever special issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies devoted to Palestinian development that I have been invited to introduce.1 Indeed, it is fitting that these original pieces of Palestinian scholarship appear in the Journal, as I was personally exposed to the work of the four authors (both at conferences and as an academic referee) since the period that I published, with Sobhi Samour in this Journal, one of the first critiques of Palestinian economic doctrine in the post-Arafat era.2 In particular, the 2010 conference at Birzeit University, titled “Geographies of Aid Intervention in Palestine,”3 was an important first step in the informed public debate on what development had come to mean after Oslo. That conference spurred further work by Birzeit’s Center for Development Studies and the
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on alternative development strategies, building up a series of studies by Palestinian scholars questioning mainstream theories and common prescriptions on Palestinian development, especially in contrast to the reform and state-building agenda that was ushered in after 2007.4
The articles published here are selected from that group of studies (which unfortunately cannot all appear in this special issue), and are just the tip of the iceberg of a rapidly growing literature that challenges, both conceptually and empirically, the conventional wisdomupheld by policy and capital elites in Palestine and among the ranks of most donors and international organizations. They represent a good sample of the scope and depth of the sort of work that is starting to emerge, and they reflect important innovations in Palestine studies as applied to the field of development, through their treatments of donor interventions (Linda Tabar), economic policy (Adam Hanieh), governance (Leila Farsakh), and infrastructure (Omar Jabary Salamanca).
I introduce this body of new literature with reference to the authors’ collective contributions to four key trends in the new subdiscipline of Palestinian development studies (whose emergence I detect in their work and that of others), but I also suggest that lingering questions remain as to where this might all lead. The questions reflect not so much on the articles published here but rather on the broader school of critical development thought with which they are associated and which vigorously contests the conventional wisdom that has prevailed since Oslo. My reflections here emerge from my own path through Palestinian development studies before, during, and after Oslo and stem from my own impatience for fresh thinking unencumbered by the legacy of twenty years of a dead-end political and intellectual trajectory or of fifty years of a failing national liberation movement. As a proponent, designer, and (more recently) critic of Palestinian development planning and policy since the 1980s, I have concluded that being older today does not necessarily mean that I cannot be younger now than I was before!5
Highlighting Palestinian Agency
On the abovementioned hypothetical bookshelves and reading lists of the Palestinian development studies departments of tomorrow, the smaller, pre-1990s collection would include a number of studies dating from the 1960s about Palestinian social and economic conditions in Israel, and subsequently in the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 occupation. Until the PLO began producing its own academic literature, Israeli scholars and official sources were almost the only observers and analysts of Palestinian socioeconomic development. This continued to be the case at least until the Oslo period, as Israeli official and academic institutions were in the best position to thoroughly examine the conditions of the native population under their rule. Needless to say, within the settler-colonial mindset that dominates Israeli academia in its view of so-called indigenous minorities, the literature produced was almost wholly Orientalist in what I call the tradition of Zionist political economy. In other words, the Arab fellah society needed adequate exposure to the advanced Israeli economy in order to modernize, if not catch up. The point is that this body of Israeli academic literature—which was succeeded by a stream of post-Oslo international scholarly examination of Palestinian development that exceeded Palestinian self-investigation of this vital subject—can be demeaning and dispossessing of the object of research, the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights and aspirations. Often ignoring or at best patronizing the perceptions and realities lived by the objects of research, such academia-serving policy ultimately risks resulting in a situation where others are taking decisions on behalf of the Palestinian people themselves.
This is another important area where the articles presented here (and in many other examples elsewhere) stress agency as an essential component of socioeconomic and humanities research, in particular Palestinian “anti-colonial agency.” Similar to the concept of “ownership” that is highlighted in international development cooperation projects—whereby local communities/entities benefiting from international aid, design, implement, and take ownership of the aid and projects in question—reinstituting agency in Palestinian development studies serves to remove the filters of cultural, ideological, theoretical, or other bias inherent to much of the literature of the preceding period. This is well-addressed in Linda Tabar’s article, “Disrupting Development, Reclaiming Solidarity: The Anti-Politics of Humanitarianism,” which explores international food aid to the occupied Palestinian territories after the second intifada within an analysis of the classical philosophy of humanitarianism in which “the other is silent.” Tabar demonstrates with resort to a wealth of field information and relevant statistical data “that because the humanitarian paradigm restricts ‘compassion’ to passive victims, who ‘only suffer but do not act,’ it disrupts and undermines Palestinians’ anti-colonial agency.”
Clearly, rigorous attention to such ethical and methodological standards in Palestinian social sciences is needed after the PA’s long-standing passivity in terms of policy-making boldness and capacity in socioeconomic, as well as security and political domains. Specifically, in the area of development, external drivers such as the World Bank, IMF, and UN/donor organizations predominate in telling the Palestinians what is best for them and how best to get it done. Not only are donor programs rarely “owned” in either design or implementation phases, but increasingly Palestinian government and NGO “beneficiaries” of international aid have largely abandoned any pretext of trying to influence the aid flows, acquiescing in whatever the changing priorities of this or that donor might bring in the next funding cycle. So through informed scholarship such as this, greater agency might indeed permeate the Palestinian body politic in the years to come.
While this brand of scholarship needs to remain vigilant about not becoming restrictive or exclusive by overemphasizing Palestinian agency and promoting a populist political language, a more immediate challenge is how to begin rethinking about these interrelated questions—of agency, humanitarianism, discourses, practices—in order to develop a political economy of Palestinian governance that informs development decision-making according to Palestinian priorities, needs, and visions. Echoing widely held popular perceptions of donor diktats and Palestinian beneficiary passive collusion, academic endeavors such as these can only be expected to do their job of revealing and analyzing the nature of the current power structure of aid. We cannot hold them accountable for the design of the development future or policy, something that requires a much broader collaboration between academia and the political space. The disconnect can be expected to continue to prevail between research on what might be termed a new “economic resistance development policy” as advocated by this group of authors and others and, the actual processes and corridors of policy-making in Ramallah, Tel Aviv, Brussels, or Washington. In the absence of an oft-heralded but elusive revolutionary moment of confrontation with settler colonialism (or even with Palestinian neoliberalism) that prompts a more radical shift or upset of the ruling political and economic regime, this gulf may only be bridged through a persistent process of education, advocacy, mobilization, challenging of perceptions, and the reshaping of conventional wisdom by scholars, activists, and citizens.
Reframing the Debate: Settler Colonialism Is the Original Sin
A primary article of faith of this new Palestinian development research is that its analysis of the issues must not ignore or minimize the context in which they occur, namely a century-old process of Zionist settler colonialism and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Until the first intifada and Oslo, the social science research that was produced was all premised on the centrality of settler colonialism to Palestinian economic and social conditions. Since then, however, the idea that depoliticized analysis and textbook technical solutions could deliver Palestinian development, even under occupation, became the unshakeable premise of most of the international and Palestinian academic and official treatment of development issues.
With a few exceptions (like the work of some UN agencies and a handful of scholars), analysis, reports, policy-making, and debate since the 1990s shifted significantly. From how to liberate the “occupied Palestinian territory,” achieve the rights of the “Palestinian people,” and resolve the “Question of Palestine”—UN terminology that characterized the discussion until the 1980s—the discourse came to focus on aid for the “Palestinian territory,” managing the “Palestinian Authority,” and more recently promoting the recognition of a virtual “State of Palestine.” In the language of the post-Oslo era, “occupation” stands for “settler colonialism,” Palestine is (at best) the West Bank and Gaza, and the “State of Palestine” can actually claim no more than local government jurisdiction over less than 10 percent (Areas A and B) of historic Palestine. And the (Zionist) State of Israel is termed a “partner” in a twenty-five-year old peace process.
Adam Hanieh has upset that narrative, with “Development as Struggle: Confronting the Reality of Power in Palestine.” In his words, mainstream advocates conceive of “development as a neutral technocratic process whose success hinges on the right technical and financial support from donors, a negotiated reduction in Israeli-imposed restrictions, and the implementation of appropriate state-building policies on the part of the PA.” Instead, Hanieh and many others hammer home the need to frame any serious analysis of Palestinian realities in the broader tradition of settler-colonial studies through reference to the manner in which economic neoliberalism has limited or neutralized Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism. This was elaborated by Omar Jabary Salamanca et al. in their introduction to the 2012 special issue of Settler Colonial Studies,6 and continues to infuse analysis of many areas of Palestinian scholarship, even leading to a recent self-critical assessment of the state of the scholarship by Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah.7 Not only does Hanieh here point to the need for conceptually and strategically relinking class-based struggles and anti-colonial struggles but his peers also point to the fact that these struggles can (and should) be linked on the ground—as in the case of farmers and grassroots agricultural organizations struggling to rebuild local food production, for example (see the discussion below of Linda Tabar’s contribution). While the understanding of connections
between the struggles against capitalist exploitation and those against settler colonialism is deeply rooted in the history of the Palestine liberation struggle, until now the latter has systematically trumped the former for reasons related to the notion that national unity could not countenance class conflict and the interest of the ruling Palestinian elites in such an ordering of priorities. No doubt that the terms of Oslo encouraged the further separation of these issues in a manner that allowed state-building to proceed without liberation, on the grounds that a liberal society and economy could be built on the premise that the market is somehow neutral.
Assigning these myths to the dustbin of Palestinian intellectual history is a welcome breath of fresh air that can only encourage the coming generation of research to keep the discussion real and to avoid diversions such as those that prevailed in the era of the peace process: free market economics, phantom state-building governance programs, disempowering the Palestinian people, and transforming them into spectators to their own ongoing tragedy. But my remaining concern, as yet not fully addressed by this generation, is what comes next, now that we have reinserted this new work into the right historical and material perspective? Is it simply that we thus succeed in better elaborating the truth, in better understanding the underlying dynamics at work in otherwise inexplicable Palestinian economic and social phenomena? How can the settler-colonial framework provide a better guide for policy action aimed at social and economic progress for the Palestinian people? Is “reform” of the PA possible without fundamentally relaunching the national struggle? How can settler-colonial studies help build a consensus as to which liberation agenda is the right one for Palestine? Should it be one that focuses on national liberation from a colonial regime in the West Bank and Gaza, the only answer to which is national self-determination? Or rather is this a call for social and economic liberation struggle by Palestinians wherever they live under Israeli domination irrespective of statehood? These are some of the intriguing new areas for research that first come to mind reviewing these articles.
Contesting Neoliberalism: The Palestinian Dimension
No less central to the critique of orthodox scholarship inherent in this body of work is the manner in which the exclusion of a settler-colonial perspective from the conceptual debate on Palestinian development in the past twenty years has been accompanied by the adoption of neoliberal values, governance, and policies as the credo of the PA regime. This seemingly twin process entailed, inter alia, an artificial separation of the political from the economic/social, as if the latter could be treated
with a suspension of belief regarding the former. This is most evident in the domain of economic policy, as covered in Hanieh’s article, which highlights how the PA’s neoliberal development framework misses, indeed “obfuscates, and thereby strengthens, the reality of Israeli settler colonialism in the occupied Palestinian territories.” The collusion between the PA, donors, and Israel that has maintained the instruments and rules of Oslo in place for twenty years despite their widely discredited status among most Palestinians and many others has never been without a large chorus of supporting expert opinion from international and domestic opinion-shapers and policy elites. This has been evident and is explored in its more nuanced forms in the context of promoting a certain concept of governance favored by Western donors and many willing Palestinian partners.
Leila Farsakh’s article, “Undermining Democracy in Palestine: The Politics of International Aid since Oslo” takes the analysis of neoliberalism in Palestine further with her research on programs by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), its UK counterpart (known as DFID), and the World Bank that prioritize nongovernmental organizations over participatory political institutions. Such programs, she writes, “remain confined to a neoliberal paradigm that places the individual rather than the collectivity at the center of the analysis, making his/her mission and focus the functioning of a free market and prosperous consumer economy.” As a result, “they entrench a settler-colonial reality rather than sustain the Palestinian struggle for decolonization and national liberation.”
The point is that an understanding of neoliberalism is seen as necessary by a growing number of scholars, practitioners, and activists in different domains in order to take the analysis of Palestinian development (whether in its widest or most specific forms) a step forward from the sterile discussion about institutional reform, sound economic policy, and fiscal responsibility. And this is not only relevant to analysis of economic development; it applies in areas such as social affairs and poverty, natural resource management and public utilities, and political participation and governance.
Such contextualization in terms of the global and local supremacy of neoliberal thought and practice is necessary and informative, but I think it is legitimate to also ask how, when a critical analysis of neoliberalism is injected into the public domain, it can be an effective political and social mobilizing slogan that does not further polarize an otherwise wide Palestinian consensus on the need to resist settler colonialism through a nationalist political program. So while Palestinians may today agree on the latter, there is no real discussion on whether to resist neoliberalism, something many of the new scholars contend is necessary. I agree with these authors that the two concepts are mutually reinforcing and the predominance of one cannot be understood in isolation from the other, but there are differential implications in resisting only one or both. While neoliberalism is a dubious concept among governing elites in Palestine, it is part of the standard discourse of this group of scholars and beyond. Yet, however accurately that concept may depict the manner in which the interests of big capital have been entrenched in the free-market economy of the PA in recent years, the advance of neoliberalism remains at the fringes of the concerns of the broad public, and foreign to the thinking of most Palestinian mainstream economists and social scientists. This calls for wider discussion of the implications of insistence on the need for a critique of neoliberalism to frame any discussion of Palestinian development prospects and policies, taking into consideration Palestinian political realities. Greater efforts are needed to make the concept of neoliberalism, its operational forms, and its implications for Palestinian liberation better understood and integrated into discourse, and hence more relevant to the perceptions of working people and households. It is not enough that it simply be a subject for academic discussion amongst scholars or political campaigns against rapacious capitalism.
The Material and the Theory Go Hand in Hand, but Only So Far
In all the articles published here, as well as in the broader pool of new material appearing in Palestinian and international journals and books, there is perhaps a greater emphasis than previously on a brand of conceptual and methodological rigor that is at once critical of mainstream theory and concerned about the need for scholarship to respond to and engage with the interrelated Palestinian and global struggles for liberation. This is not a matter of glib lip service to this or that scholar’s pet passion, but rather an intellectual awakening of sorts after several decades of monopoly by liberal ideology over the playing field of Palestinian politics, economy, and social organization. As members of this intellectual awakening, all the authors published here have
brought into the debate a body of conceptual and comparative literature that challenges orthodoxy through alternative analyses and theories in different areas, under rubrics such as critical geography, settler-colonial studies, and political economy of development. At the same time, given the concomitant concern that their scholarship should retain relevance to people and engage with liberation, these authors are careful to infuse their work with solid and fresh empirical and field investigation, without allowing their preferred theory to dictate the path of research and inquiry; rather, they interact with the realities recorded and provide answers all the while posing new questions. And although they prefer to avoid tackling questions of policy—the domain of those in power whose ideologies and decisions are being contested by this literature—a critique of those ideologies is also necessarily a critique of policy, and hence it also needs to understand how to propose alternative policy.
Omar Jabary Salamanca’s investigation titled “Assembling the Fabric of Life: When Settler Colonialism Becomes Development,” is a case in point. It draws on a wide selection of theoretical and multidisciplinary research that explores the centrality of infrastructure in development processes by looking at how road networks materialize in space to reinforce existing power relations. Through a detailed empirical investigation of the manner in which the development and donor funding of the road infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories has taken place within contours established by the settler-colonial logic and the collusion of Palestinian making elites, Jabary concludes that “donor-funded Palestinian roads are inscribed with power geometries that are central to the continuous reformulation of settler-colonial space.” This frames the author’s argument that infrastructures “are primordial material and symbolic means through which the settler community is territorialized while native outsiders are deterritorialized.”
This type of analysis is innovative, not only in Palestinian geography and social studies, but also in the wider context of weaving theory, thought, and the record of material conditions in a pattern that promotes praxis. This disciplinary dynamic was largely absent in the preceding period as Palestinian development came to be seen as a technocratic process and as theory and empirical research became subservient to the prevailing discourse of the peace process, liberal economic and social development, reform, and institution- (or state-) building. But the importance of engagement going along with critical analysis requires addressing a possible paradox of inaction beyond critically (and effectively) deconstructing the predominant
development policy framework. Pursuit of a critique that challenges PA development policy entailing acquiescence in building “fabric-of-life” roads proposed and planned by the Israeli occupation authorities and funded by USAID is fine. But since this body of scholarship also effectively concludes that because of its links to the Oslo framework and its functions within it, any program pursued by the PA can only be collaborationist (at best), it remains hesitant about engaging with the realities of policy as they are, as opposed to the way they should be or we might like them to be.
Critical research that is not equipped from the outset with viable alternatives can raise new problems while resolving others, akin to saying to the policy-makers: don’t do policy because when viewed through our lens, the only policy you can do simply serves to prolong and deepen colonial control, even while acknowledging that in doing so you are making day-to-day movement and access for average Palestinians under occupation less of a grind. This all-important challenge of adapting the conclusions of critical research to actually changing people’s material conditions for the better remains one that needs to be better addressed by concerned scholars in all these related disciplines. We can thank this group of writers for taking one part of the discussion out of the confines determined for so long by the conventional wisdom, but however well-grounded and conceptually worthy in its own right such study is, fresh thinking is warranted to effect the changes (not only in thinking, but in policy) that they are calling for.
* * *
I of course leave it to JPS readers to judge for themselves whether my introduction of this collection of new Palestinian social science has identified what best sets it apart from the literature of the preceding decades that it seeks to challenge, if not upset. While I have emphasized four areas where I perceive important breakthroughs towards a new spirit of scholarship, I have also been candid about my own uncertainties as to some of the implications of this latest generation of research, and the questions it raises about what comes next arise less from my reading of these articles than from my own search to define the terms of good and bad (as per the Dylan epigraph recalled in this essay). I do so in full confidence that the authors, and others with whom I have discussed these issues over the years as their work unfolded, will readily embrace these concerns and, I have no doubt, will have their own answers ready to integrate into the next iteration of their thinking and work.8
About the Author
Raja Khalidi is a development economist who worked with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) from 1985–2013. He currently lives in Palestine and serves as research coordinator at the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS).
1) The four papers that follow this introduction were commissioned and produced as part of a research program funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, at the Center for Development Studies, Birzeit University.
2) Raja Khalidi and Sobhi Samour, “Neoliberalism as Liberation: The Statehood Program and the Remaking of the Palestinian National Movement,” Journal of Palestine Studies 40, no. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 6–25,
3) See“Geographies of Aid Intervention in Palestine” (conference, Birzeit University, Birzeit, 27–28 September 2010), The conference was supported by VLIR-UOS (Flemish Interuniversity Council–University Development Cooperation).
4) Some other examples of the work emerging from these conferences have been recently published in English, for example, Critical Readings of Development under Colonialism: Towards a Political Economy for Liberation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Ramallah: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation/Center for Development Studies, 2015),
5) “Good and bad, I define these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages,” 1964.
6) Omar Jabary Salamanca, Mezna Qato, Kareem Rabie and Sobhi Samour, “Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Settler Colonial Studies 2, no. 1 (2012), doi:10.1080/2201473X.2012.10648823.
7) Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah, “Acts and Omissions: Framing Settler Colonialism in Palestinian Studies,” Jadaliyya, 14 January 2016,
8) In developing my own thinking over the past few years on the issues raised in this introduction, I have benefited from engaging in debate with those published here or involved in the Birzeit University conferences cited above and others. I would like to note my special gratitude for stimulating discussions on Palestinian political and development issues with Samia al-Botmeh, Misyef Misyef, Ghania Melhees, Fadle Naqib, Numan Kanafani, Nabeel Kassis, Kareem Rabie, Mezna Qato, Yasmine Saleh, Sobhi Samour, and Mandy Turner.