Religion & Beliefs

Planned Communities in Palestine’s Future Suburbs

Last week saw the Palestine Investment Conference, a three-day affair in Bethlehem organized to highlight investment opportunities in the Palestinian economy. Jewcy contributor James Murray-White was there to cover the event from start to finish. Ala ‘Alaeddin, the chairman of … Read More

By / May 29, 2008

Last week saw the Palestine Investment Conference, a three-day affair in Bethlehem organized to highlight investment opportunities in the Palestinian economy. Jewcy contributor James Murray-White was there to cover the event from start to finish.

Ala ‘Alaeddin, the chairman of PITA (Palestinian IT Association of Companies), opened an enlightening session on ICT sector opportunities: ‘Digital Bridge to the Future’, with some interesting facts about the growth of ICT in the West Bank and Gaza (and East Jerusalem): There are 270 ICT enterprises, which contribute 0.5% to the Palestinian GDP; there are 3600 current ICT professionals here, with 17,000 students currently enrolled in ICT-related fields at college.

“Come invest in Palestine, make it an ICT success story,” Mr. ‘Alaeddin appealed to the audience of about 200. It seemed fitting that during this session, the young Palestinian businessman next to me played with his iPhone. I haven’t seen many of them in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and have craved one since being in New York during their spectacular launch last year. Without lifting his eyes from the sexy device, he assured me that yes, they are available locally, and yes, the coverage is fine. Later, Prime Minister Fayyad chaired a session which was filled to capacity on Gaza. A 100-strong delegation had come from Gaza, with tense negotiations going on for weeks between the conference organising committee and Israeli officials. Only 10 applications for visas from Gazan’s were refused. One of the delegates from Gaza spoke from the platform: “I hope we have hit rock bottom.”

While the situation in Gaza (from an outsider’s perspective) seems hopeless and locked in a bitter stalemate (although Egypt is trying to broker a truce between Hamas and Israel), some brave souls are trying to maintain business and look to the future. There are several fish farm projects in development for Gaza. Let's hope that peace brokering will cause the fledging tilapia to flourish. After the Gaza session we became acquainted with Sir Ronald Cohen, a British Jewish philanthropist. He made his money through a private equity firm, is a graduate of Oxford with an MBA from Harvard, and sits on the board of Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. His foundation, the Portland Trust, has offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, is a driving force behind micro finance in Palestine, and has also prioritized an affordable housing program. Sir Cohen was a formidable Western financial presence at the conference, and it is an optimistic sign to see diaspora Jewish wealth flowing in. One of the projects that the Portland Trust is backing is the creation of Rawabi, (Arabic for ‘the hills’) a brand new Palestinian town based on principles of social, low-cost housing, on a hill 9km outside Ramallah. It's planned to feature 5,000 housing units with a residential capacity of 25,000 inhabitants. Development of the town will occur over five years, costing over $350 million, and is a partnership construction project between a Palestinian firm, Massar International, and Diar Real Estate from Qatar. Walking around the Pavilion was perhaps the highlight of the conference for me. Here, in a polystyrene block mock castle, in the conference center’s carpark, were the local Palestinian people who had goods to show and sell, and who wanted to chat about everyday life without an undercurrent of big business deals. An unfolding spectacle of sights, sounds, and smells, here were stone masons and mosaic artists, organic olive oil producers (the wonderful Zaytoun, who are big exporters to the UK), salami producers, weavers of Bedouin rugs, embroiderers, and many others. This was the place to visit when the intensity in the center below became overwhelming. Sure, a few suits walked up the hill, and they visibly unwound when they interacted with real people, but in general this area was the halfway house between the political-business dealings in the center, and the sharp realities of the city of Bethlehem below.

The one depressing aspect of the Conference in my eyes was the sheer amount of materials that were thrown at it. In every corner of both the Jacir Palace Hotel and the Conference Center, piles of booklets, briefing papers, and general bumf were stacked. In addition, the amount of freebies in the form of paper bags (at least they were paper bags) full of pens, sun hats, mugs, and other giveaways was disconcerting. I won’t deny that in my role as journalist I have brought some of this stuff home to wade through, but at least it can be recycled here, or kept, or passed on as a resource. Perhaps you could argue that a Western audience of investors and regular conference goers expects this resource, but I’m sad that despite all the political and economic difficulties the Palestinian Authority faces in trying to establish itself as a democratic presence, the environment doesn’t come up on top of the list. In all the sessions I attended—including those with Tony Blair and Bernard Kouchner—the environment and the sustainable use of scant resources were barely mentioned. I met the executive director of the Palestine Wildlife Society, Imad Atrash, but we didn’t have long enough to debate this issue. Also, representatives of the Fair Trade market in Palestine, including Zaytoun, provided information at their stand, but this issue didn’t make it into the main conference session on boosting the agricultural sector. I talked to a Bethlehem manager of a Stone and Marble Manufacturing Company, and pressed him on the issue. He agreed that water and its lack scarcity was a key issue, but knew of no ways to reduce its usage in his highly water-intensive business. Palestinian stone companies earn a rough total of $450 million annually. This Company had just signed a deal with the Chinese government to supply $6 million worth of stone to a hospital project in Jordan, being built by China.
On Friday afternoon it was leaked in the British media that on his way to the conference from Sharm El-Sheik, while flying in his Quartet-funded private jet, Tony Blair’s pilot ignored Israeli air traffic controllers and nearly got shot down by Israeli warplanes. I’m still pondering the possible consequences (for Israel and the Middle East) of that narrowly averted mishap. I asked several participants and Palestinian media what they thought of the role of Blair and his presence in Palestine. Their response was mixed: One guy was vehement in his hatred of “the imperialists Britain and the US.” Most, however, welcomed Blair’s input, although many thought his Israel bias prevented too much easing of restrictions for Palestinian movement, and some questioned the wisdom of inward investment in Palestine unless trade visas were opened up significantly. The concluding half day of the conference was something of a disappointment, as many of the delegates had already left, and there weren’t many other foreigners around. In some ways, those who remained were able to take a breath and relax. Unfortunately, it was now the American Security guards turn to be unnecessarily hostile, although it really wasn’t clear who they were guarding (or whom they were guarding from whom). This attitude of imperial self-importance contrasted sharply with the sense of pride that came from the dignitaries wrapping up the final session.
Prime Minister Fayyad vowed that he and his government would “now build on the progress achieved here. Despite the chaos of traffic congestion during the event… Our response is in the mission of Palestine. We send a message of peace from here. This conference was convened in Bethlehem—the womb of success.” French Foreign Minister (and the extraordinary humanitarian behind Medecins Sans Frontieres) Bernard Kouchner, sounded a celebratory tone, in the light of his earlier meetings with his Israeli counterpart—“What a success, huh?"

He concluded with the beautifully informal “See you soon. Be good.”

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