Religion & Beliefs

Suits, Spies, Sheiks, and Sultans

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. The Conference began properly at … 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.

The Conference began properly at 4 o'clock, with President Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad (the Prime Minister of Palestine), and Tony Blair entering through the middle of journalists hovering around the main conference room. We media had been told in advance that we couldn’t enter this session, and were ushered along—with the many delegates who found there was no room for them either—into another room to watch proceedings on a screen, complete with faulty translation devices. Abbas apologized for the chaos evident at the conference, asked for our sympathy in light of it being their first, and promised to make amends in the future. In the midst of the day, news filtered out—mainly between journalists on the phones to their bureaus, and then referred to by Abbas in his speech—that Israel and Syria had announced they were in talks towards a peace treaty. Abbas welcomed this, but then cataloged the many ways Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians made economic development difficult. Judging by the wealth on display amongst the delegates milling outside, this is a little hard to believe. Interestingly, he reached out to the “brothers in Gaza” and hoped that there would be change there soon. A delegate whispered to me that there were many Hamas spies amongst us, mixed in with the suits, and possibly wearing the robes of sheiks and sultans. I remained vigilant. If you’ve been to Bethlehem before, you will no doubt have visited the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square, perhaps Solomon’s Pools and the Shepherd's Field (a strange place, filled with dozens of little churches, crypts, and olive wood carvings available from the olive wood carvings superstore across the road). It's a curious place. There’s a strong sense that something needs to give in this city—it is a tourist ‘mecca’, but the tourists only trickle through, partly because of the facts on the ground, and partly due to fear.

I’m not a newcomer to Bethlehem, and was here almost a year ago for a conference of a similar length run by an American organization dedicated to the cause of non-violence. It was a great experience, and it's great to come back with an entirely different focus. The first conference was laid back, and took place at several venues across the city, without such security measures in place. The highlight was seeing Martin Luther King III arrive with a huge delegation of African Americans in tow.
With the dawn of the third day, the PIC was really underway. The venue moved to the newly built conference center, a swish pile high on a hill overlooking Solomon’s Pools. Upon arrival, I noticed that there was a different energy to the event—the delegates had slept well, they were being well-looked after (fed, watered, and given lots of freebies), and were in their stride, networking and doing deals left, right, and openly in the hallway. The moving and shaking was really happening, and the delegates from far and near had taken over the asylum. Booths had been erected in the conference center lobby: the Islamic Bank (great toffees), USAID (lots of smiles, and paper bags loaded with papers), and the Brits, in the form of DFID (Department for International Development), who weren’t so forthcoming, but who did have a great big flag, which made my heart flutter a little.


USAID has half a dozen programs running in the West Bank including loan guarantees, which shore up fledgling projects during the current weak state of the US economy. One project is a drip irrigation program for small households of 1.5 dunam plots, encouraging self-sufficiency in vegetable growing; another is the Khaizaran herb farm in Tubas. This is the first commercial Palestinian herb enterprise, and since opening in May last year, has tapped into lucrative markets in Europe, Russia, and the US.

At the DFID booth I met a Brit, Mark Pearson, who runs Hucksters, an advertising and publishing consultancy firm which has been developing call center facilities in the West Bank. This is a good example of the raw potential in Palestine, which is being seized upon by investors and business entrepreneurs alike.

Later, I talked with Rob Quartel, the CEO of FreightDesk Technologies, who has pioneered an innovative software application to manage goods and trucks in and out of border crossings. This is up and running in Jordan, and he was in Bethlehem to investigate whether the Palestinians can make use of it. He's optimistic it will work here…

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