PALESTINE: Little-known progress in Palestine
Timothy Rothermel

The Palestinian people are capable of achieving tremendous development despite facing enormous challenges. They also yearn to lead normal lives. Consequently, they present a profound opportunity for democracy and peace in the Middle East.

But, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is having a disastrous effect on the Palestinian people. The three-year intifada has claimed more than 4,200 deaths and 42,000 injured on both sides. The Palestinian fatalities and casualties, however, are almost 300 percent greater than Israeli.

Furthermore, in every Palestinian city and village aspirations have been shattered, livelihoods denied, movement restricted and psyches especially those of the young - destroyed. Currently, the rate of Palestinian unemployment is 46 percent, some 60 percent are living below the poverty line of $2 per day. That ranges from 57 percent in West Bank and 84 percent in Gaza. Direct damage to the economy is estimated at $11.7 billion.

Yet the common public perception is dramatically fueled by news photos of burning Israeli buses and body parts, or bomb-ruined Palestinian orchards and structures, and the lengthening separation wall.

Scratch below the surface and something quite phenomenal is taking place in the Palestinian society. There is a vibrant, talented, peaceful and very resolute society that is determined, in spite of suffering, to forge a peaceful, democratic and pluralistic state with institutions prepared to place Palestinians in their rightful seat among the society of nations.

Since the inception of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994, government institutions that are second to none in the Middle East have emerged including, a very competent Palestinian central bureau of statistics; a Palestinian water authority that is helping manage the meager resources; a finance ministry that, under the leadership of a former IMF representative in the occupied territories, Salaam Fayyed, is managing very scarce financial resources comparably to similar institutions in developed nations.

Further, there is a central elections commission that is staffed and prepared should circumstances, and in particular closures, be rescinded - to oversee the country"s second presidential and legislative election, as well as its first election of municipal and local officials; an indigenously initiated governmental reform process that has greatly improved the judiciary system, including state-of-the-art courthouses; modern procedures for local governance; training for professional diplomats; detailed mapping of cultural and archaeological treasures; a sophisticated investment promotion organization ready to activate when the crisis ends.

Likewise, in civil society and in the private sector, Palestinians have begun or improved highly respectable organizations dealing with human rights; transparency in governance; and institutions dealing with youth, public health and community participation.

Two relatively new institutions are MIFTAH (The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy) and AMAN (The Coalition for Accountability and Integrity). Both have been recognized internationally for their accomplishments.

In information technology, five independent providers are competing for the cellular phone market, e-business is thriving and e-government is starting. An innovative activity called SchoolNet plans to equip school classrooms with computers and train computer teachers. What is truly remarkable is that most of this has been initiated and actualized by Palestinians, including those of the Diaspora. Second, the developments are flourishing in the face of daily setbacks and tragedies. The international community including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other UN organizations - has been a partner and lent a nurturing hand. However, the intellectual spark and the drive for institutional excellence has come from within this remarkable society.

Have there been mistakes? Yes. Has there been corruption? Undeniably! Will more young Palestinians in desperation and seeking retribution strap themselves with bombs? Not to be excluded. Is there a long way to go? Definitely! Is it imperative that donors continue to provide support to Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory? Absolutely. In the search for a democratic, secular and progressive state in the Middle East, the seeds have been sown in the occupied territories and are ready to grow with the right opportunity.

Timothy Rothermel is Special Representative of the UNDP in Jerusalem and a founder of its 25-year-old Program of Assistance to the Palestinian People.