The Palestine Investment Conference – Changing the face of the crisis

An interview with Dawood Hamoudeh of Stop the Wall in Ramallah, Palestine.

-->To download or listen to the audio version of this report, visit:
http://www.radio4all.net/proginfo.php?id=27656

The Palestine Investment Conference (PIC), taking place in Bethlehem from May 21-23, has enthusiastically declared "Palestine is open for business". The conference, which draws together around 1200 Palestinian, Israeli, and international private investors and government delegations, is aimed at jumpstarting the process of integrating Palestine into the global economy.

While $2 billion USD worth of projects are being planned and inked at the PIC, almost entirely absent from the agenda is any mention that the Palestinian territories have been under the longest illegal military occupation in recent history.

While some are optimistic at the economic opportunities that such a conference could bring to the impoverished West Bank and Gaza Strip, others are critical of the conference, charging that it is being used as a tool to normalize Israeli apartheid policies in the region.

Dawood Hamoudeh is an organizer with the Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (www.stopthewall.org), based in Ramallah. Hamoudeh recently authored a report entitled "Development or Normalization? A critique of West Bank development approaches and projects".

The IMEMC's Aaron Lakoff spoke with Hamoudeh over the phone about his views on the PIC in Bethlehem, and current obstacles to Palestinian economic life, particularly with regards to tourism and agriculture.

---To download a copy of Dawood Hamoudeh's report, visit:
http://www.stopthewall.org/downloads/PRDPcritique.pdf

---To view the Stop the Wall statement about the Palestine Investment Conference:
http://stopthewall.org/latestnews/1654.shtml

Aaron: Stop the Wall put out a statement very critical of the Palestine Investment Conference (PIC), as well as a report called "Development or Normalization". Can you talk about what you see are some of the problematic aspects of a conference like this taking place in the West Bank?

Dawood: First of all, I must say that we are not against the idea this conference. Totally the opposite. We believe that the Palestinian community does need such conferences.

Our main problem is on how this conference was organized, and which projects were proposed and planned in general.

We are in a crisis economical situation, and we need such a conference to gather all the efforts to get out of this crisis. What is important in these conferences is the projects and the plans, the invited people and so on.

The schedule and plans of this conference were put in place without consulting the major Palestinian society institutions, NGO's, politicians, activists. It was only minimized to a group of people – some businessmen who designed the whole conference plan. This imprisoned the whole Palestinian society in these individuals' ideals.

The other issue is with the announced projects at this conference. First of all, most of these projects were proposed in the 1990's. None of them are new, and none of them are connecting to the realities on the ground today.

For example, they are talking about a huge agricultural project in the Jordan Valley and other places. Now, when we look at the wall, it is confiscating and annexing to Israel around 82% of the water resources. Bethlehem, where the PIC is being hosted, has been suffering for three years of shortfalls of water resources, and people are not able to drink a sufficient amount of water during the summer periods. This year has been considered the worst year in water resources in the last 30 years because of droughts last winter. But here they are talking about agricultural projects. How can you water these agricultural projects if the wall confiscates your water resources? Or if the occupation authorities are not giving you your share of underground water or water from the Jordan River? If your cities and people are already suffering from a shortage of water?

What they are actually doing is changing the face of the crisis to another kind of crisis. We do have a food security problem, and an agricultural project could fix it, but this will make our water shortage problem worse and worse.

They are just replacing problems with other problems and not really trying to build up a real plan to solve problems here.

Aaron: At this conference they are discussing $2 billion USD in projects which could be implemented in the Palestinian territories. A lot of that is focused on tourism. In the statement which was put out by Stop the Wall, it mentions tourism in Bethlehem, stating that in Bethlehem, tourism projects have been put forward that put Israel's illegal wall into their workings. Can you elaborate on that, looking at how the proposed tourist projects propose to work around the wall in the West Bank?

Dawood: For the last 40 years, since the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Israelis are the only ones who control the borders in this area, and in historic Palestine. Even after the signing of the Oslo agreements, this became a key issue with the Israeli authorities. And until today, they continue to control who is allowed to enter.

But in many cases, Palestinian businessmen in the tourism sector kind of managed to organize tourist and pilgrimage delegations to come here and to stay in hotels in Bethlehem or Jerusalem. And this showed these tourists the problems of the Palestinians under occupation, and the procedures that this occupation was taking against them. So the Israelis want to end this on one hand, and on the other hand, they want to keep this business as alive as possible to generate income for their institutions and businessmen.

When they talk about pilgrims coming to Bethlehem, the number is around 2 million. In 2 years it will become 4 million. But when you look at the city of Bethlehem and what is happening there, you have a city surrounded from all directions by the wall, a built up wall around the north, a wall under construction in the west, and 2 other walls being planned (one under construction, and the other isn't). So this city will be totally surrounded by walls. And Jerusalem, which used to make up 52% of Palestine's tourism industry, is totally annexed by walls to Israel. So they have totally destroyed this sector of tourism in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Here at this conference (PIC), and since the Annapolis conference (in November, 2007), they are promoting a joint tourist project internationally which focuses on pilgrims. But these pilgrims will come to stay mainly in Israeli hotels. They will go for a couple of hours, or maybe 2 nights, to Bethlehem to visit the churches, and then back again to the Israeli hotels. When the wall is finished around Bethlehem, no tourist will be in Bethlehem if the Israelis don't let them in.

The best example is this conference itself taking place in Bethlehem. All the invitees had to receive permits from the Israelis to participate in the conference. For example, people from Gaza had to apply for an Israeli permit to come to the West Bank. Businesspeople from the north of the West Bank needed permits to enter Bethlehem to join the conference. International, foreign, and Arab delegations also needed permits from the Israelis to be able to come to this conference. So this issue will remain under the Israeli control.

Unfortunately, the only thing that the P.A (Palestinian Authority) is mentioning in the tourism project is beautifying the military checkpoints, and making them friendlier by distributing chocolate or cards to people coming through them.

So in general, this will do two things. The first is that Bethlehem tourism depends on foreign pilgrims who are under Israeli control. The second is that this project totally ignores internal or domestic tourism. For example, the Christians who live in the Jenin district in the north of the West Bank are not able to join Christian ceremonies such as New Year or Christmas in Bethlehem because of the checkpoints. So instead of calling for removing checkpoints to allow this domestic tourism, they completely ignore that to talk about foreign pilgrims who are coming from outside the West Bank.

Aaron: The report also mentions the World Bank, and the role that it has played in development projects in Palestine. The World Bank plays quite a large role in development throughout the world, sometimes not to the benefit of local communities. Can you talk a bit about institutions like the World Bank, the role that they've played in Palestine, and whether you see that role as a positive thing or a negative thing?

Dawood: As I said, none of these projects (being discussed at the PIC) are new. But the new thing is that more and more they are trying to legitimize the occupation procedures and the whole apartheid system which has been built here in the West Bank.

The World Bank is one of the main institutions that have a major role in this. Since the 90's, and since the beginning of Oslo, the international community was saying that the only viability which will be allowed for the Palestinians with a state or authority in the region is doing a joint project with the Israelis, and not an independent economical project. This remained a general feature of politicians or institutions such as the Rand corporation in the USA and other research centers. But it was not developed to on-the-ground plans in detail and how these projects should be implemented.

Then the World Bank came in. In December 2004, the World Bank distributed a document talking about the Palestinian economy. It touched mainly on three sectors; the industrial sector, water, and electricity. And the summary of the three sectors was clearly that there is no hope for any independent Palestinian economy, and the only way was to build joint projects with the Israelis. And since then, everything planned here in the West Bank has been based on this summary. The Israeli procedures on the ground are based on this plan. For example, they announced the expansion of most of the industrial settlements in the West Bank, to include more Palestinian labor.
They started launching "border industrial zones" – industrial zones between the wall and the Green Line. Now they are talking with the PA about joint border industrial zones in the same zones as the wall.

The World Bank is not only promoting, but also building in the same strategy and trying to promote it internationally as a peace-building project. And now, the so-called Palestinian Development Plan is being discussed at the PIC in Bethlehem. It is programmed and designed with consultants from the World Bank and the British Development and Investment Institution, a semi-governmental institution.

Aaron: In the statement, Stop the Wall says, "while peace talks have stalled, development projects continue that implicitly recognize expanded borders, annexations and settlements." Given the fact that the PA, along with the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert, and the Quartet for Middle East Peace are pushing toward a two-state solution that we could even see by the end of 2008 if everything goes according to their plans, can you talk about this investment conference in the context of these peace talks and Palestine having its own state.

Dawood: Again, since Oslo, these peace talks were aiming to achieve a two-state solution. But there was a big shift in 2003 when they began seriously discussing a Palestinian state. The funny thing is that from 2003 until today, the international community, the politicians, and even unfortunately some Palestinian politicians are talking about a viable Palestinian state with continuity. Until today, you will hardly find a politician mentioning the Palestinian state. They are always connecting it to viability and (territorial) continuity, which is really weird, because the definition of a state if you look in any dictionary should be viability and continuity. But insisting on mentioning these two terms along with the Palestinian state raised many questions about these negotiations.

The terminology continued in this way until February 2005, when Ariel Sharon announced his disengagement plan in the Gaza Strip. And within this disengagement plan, the Israeli government published for the first time the official maps for the wall, for the security zones, for the military zones, and so on. It became clearer what their plans were for the West Bank.

And the Israeli expectations were that this wall would be finished by the end of 2008. So on the remaining parts of the West Bank, which is 54% of the total land which will remain in ghettos, surrounded by walls in all directions, this remaining land they will allow an announcement of a Palestinian state.

But again, we are talking about around 22 isolated ghettos with no land, no resources, no border, and no real continuity. That is why they had to talk about continuity and viability. The viability is these joint economic projects which are being discussed at this moment in the Bethlehem conference.

So this is the relationship between the Bethlehem conference and the peace negotiations which are happening now.

They expect that there will be a group of Palestinian, Israeli, and international businessmen who will join each other and build a group of industrial zones, and a group of agro-industrial zones. The Palestinians living in these ghettos will start working in these industrial zones. They expect that in 15 years, there will be around 500 000 Palestinian workers working in these industrial areas. This is the only viability that the Israeli and the Quartet are allowing for the Palestinians in these negotiations.

Aaron: Can you talk about what you see as a more viable solution than the PIC? What needs to happen in Palestine to attain real economic security?

Dawood: There are two solutions. We need to start talking about a one-state solution, where everyone has equal rights whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise. The other thing is that if they still insist on talking about a two-state solution, then the first step should be totally ending the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, meaning evacuating the settlements and the Israelis retreating to the 1967 borders. They need to give the PA the full political control and responsibility on this area. Then, if the Palestinian state later decided to do a joint project, then that's its own business.

(More information on the Palestine Investment Conference can be found at the conference official website at www.pic-palestine.ps)