Dave Harden, a former senior officer in the Foreign Services at the U.S. Agency for International Development, spoke about his experiences serving in the Middle East and the lessons he learned through managing a coexistence between Israelis and Palestinans. The event, titled “Lessons Learned from the Frontlines of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” was hosted by the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee.

During the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israeli settlements were evacuated from the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank. At the time, Harden was stationed there working on economic projects to help the people who were evacuated from settlements. He said this work gave him a “unique perspective” as he was working directly with both Israelis and Palestinians. “That allowed us to do some interesting projects to figure out how and what works in terms of economics and security,” he said.

From 2005 to 2018, Harden was the USAID deputy mission director for the West Bank in Gaza, and he spoke about a few of his experiences. 

In 2014, Harden was stationed helping those living in Gaza during the war between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization. His toughest job, Harden said, was deciding how much food to buy for the Gaza residents and how to deliver it. With blocked borders and an ongoing war, Harden was tasked with finding a way to distribute enough food for two million residents for 90 days.

Pointing to a map of the region, Harden discussed what his different options for delivering the food had been. The only way to get into Gaza, Harden explained, was along the Israeli side, but he also tried to send food through the Egyptian side, although that attempt failed to work as Egypt would not allow access through its border.  “In complex crises, you want to use everything available,” Harden said. “You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket because you just don’t know what will happen.”

Harden, who had been stationed in Tel Aviv while working on solutions for the West Bank, then had to travel to Lebanon to serve there temporarily, taking a dangerous venture through the Beirut airport which is controlled by the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Once in Lebanon, he experienced the complex and fragile politics of the country.

Lebanon, Harden said, has a diverse demographic of religions made up of Druze, Maronite Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims. He noted that the country, concerned about its “power sharing agreement that keeps it all together,” has not held a census since the 1930s. “That demographic of Sunni, Shia, Druze and Christian is extremely fragile, and there are 600,000 Palestinians living in camps. It can’t work,” Harden said. 

He also explained that the Palestinians living in Lebanon are unable to leave as they are living in camps without political rights, and Hezbollah does not want Lebanon’s demographic to change. “So what I understood when I served in Lebanon,” he added, “is that the demographics of that country was a break on any resolution between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Harden then spoke next about his experience working with Jordan after the Syrian Civil War. The war displaced about 50% of the Syrian population, and many of the refugees fled to Jordan, he explained, adding that displaced persons from Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and other countries throughout the Middle East have sought refuge in Jordan as well. While in Jordan, Harden was tasked with figuring out how to create economic opportunities through trade between Jordanians and Palestinians. “We can’t have another border with chaos on our hands,” he said, having heard from both Israelis who were concerned about Jordan’s stability and Jordanians concerned about Israel’s stability.

Harden worked to achieve similar goals while stationed in Saudi Arabia, where he spoke with Saudis in the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh about creating economic opportunities for Yemen. He explained that his theory was that if a young man from Yemen had the opportunity to grow pomegranates, make them into juice and then sell the juice to Jeddah, he could envision a future for himself and have better chances going forward, including the prospect of being able to raise a family “instead of just engaged in war.”

Harden was able to put some of his economic theories to test while working in Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank, in 2005. He said that suicide bombings had been a common occurrence in Jenin in 2003, and from 2003 to 2007, the city continued to be “a center for chaos, instability and terror.”

His first theory was that “economic pressure yields political change.” Harden said that he used this theory in Gaza to pressure Hamas enough to make the organization fail and moderate. The second theory was that “economic opportunity [yields] political change.” He said that he used this theory in the West Bank to create economic opportunities through trade. “It never happens in foreign policy or international relations that you have a chance to test two competing theories at the same time and in pretty much the same place,” Harden said, expressing how this was an interesting opportunity to actually see what works economically and politically.

In Jenin, where the economic opportunity theory was tested, Harden said that unemployment rates dropped from 50% to 20%, there was better governance and education, the militia failed and there were no “lone wolf attackers.” Conversely, in Gaza, where the economic pressure theory was tested, Harden said that Hamas remains dominant and has “dramatically” improved its military capabilities. He added, “The economics of Gaza is one of despair. We’ve lost a generation.”

“So I am proud of the fact that we were able to create opportunities,” Harden said, but added, “I’m saddened by the fact that we failed in Gaza. And when we fail in Gaza, it’s not just in Gaza. It’s the Israelis, it’s the Middle East, it’s the Europeans, it’s America, it’s the world.”