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Reproducing oslo era illusions

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Investment conference seeks economic prosperity under harsh military occupation

Reproducing Oslo-era illusions

From Khalid Amayreh in Bethlehem

A three-day economic conference aimed at attracting foreign investments to revive the dilapidated Palestinian economy got underway in this southern Palestinian town on Wednesday amid tight security.

Opening the conference, Palestinian Authority ( PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed hundreds of Arab and foreign investors, saying that economic prosperity in the occupied Palestinian territories would expedite the political process and enhance Palestinian steadfastness vis-à-vis the Israeli occupation.

Abbas also called on Hamas, the Islamic Resistance group which won Palestinian general elections in 2006, to “recognize the Palestinian legitimacy” and “revert to the language of reason.”

Abbas reiterated commitment to Palestinian national constants, saying East Jerusalem belonged to the Palestinian people and that Israel would have to leave the holy city sooner or later.

The PA leader said there was encouraging news from Cairo with regard the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas. However, he gave no details.

Earlier, as many as 500 investors and entrepreneurs arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem, with many traveling from Jordan via the Allenby bridge.

Participants included dozens of Diaspora-based Palestinian investors as well a high-level delegation from the United Arab Emirates which arrived aboard a Jordanian army helicopter directly from Amman, apparently in coordination with Israel.

It is believed that at least seven Israeli investors are participating in the conference.

However, Hussein al Sheikh, head of the liaison and coordination office, said the Israeli authorities refused to give entry visas to a number of invitees. His remarks illustrated the fact that Israel still tightly controls access to the West Bank, an overwhelming factor PA officials often pretend it didn’t exist.

Hasan Abu Libdeh, the general manager of the conference, said Palestinians had no choice but to deal with Israel.

“We import up to 90% of our needs from Israel, Israel occupies our country and controls our lives.?

Abu Libdeh, however, evaded questions on whether PA laws allowed Israeli investors to invest into the Palestinian economy and whether this would undermine the Palestinian national struggle for freedom, independence and statehood.

He also docked critical and occasionally embarrassing questions suggesting that the PA was only replaying the “failed experiment of Oslo,” a clear reference to the Oslo Agreement between the PLO and Israel in 1993.

Sharp criticisms

Critics, some of whom associated with the Palestinian opposition, castigated the organizers of the conference, accusing them of “normalizing relations with Israel at the expense of our national cause and struggle for freedom and independence.”

A press release jointly by the National Committee for Boycotting Israel (NCBI) and the National Committee for Commemorating the Nakba (NCCN) charged that the conference would only increase Palestinian economic subservience to Israel.

“It is very well known that the main reason for economic stagnation in the occupied Palestinian territories is the Israeli occupation. The fact that this conference completely ignores the cardinal fact as well as the roadblocks, the apartheid wall and the unrelenting settlement expansion raises many questions and question marks about the conference and the real goals it seeks to achieve.”

The press release also pointed out that the business ventures being pursued would meet the needs of the Israeli occupation and Israeli economy, first and foremost.

“What we need is a national Palestinian conference that would strengthen Palestinian steadfastness and put us in a better position to resist the occupation, regain our freedom and end our subservience to the Israeli occupation and economy.”

Reproducing the old illusions

Palestinian economist Adel Samara criticized the conference, calling it an exposed attempt to reproduce the Oslo-era illusions.

“They are trying to deceive us again. During the so-called Oslo years, they told us that Gaza would become the Singapore of the Middle East and that the West Bank would be the hub of economic growth and prosperity.

“What actually happened is that Gaza became a concentration camp and the West Bank sank deeper and deeper in the quagmire of the occupation.”

Samara lashed out at the PA, calling them a “gang of money-grabbing careerists who are sacrificing Palestinian national interests for the sake of their immediate financial interests.”

He also accused the PA of “ pimping Arab investors to normalize with Israel.”

“This is a disgraceful economic normalization between the Arab states and Israel and it is happening at the expense of the Palestinian national cause.”

Samara scoffed at PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyadh for saying that “the presence of (PA chairman Mahmoud) Abbas at the conference was a proof of its success.”

“You see the level of logic used by our prime minister. Even a school third-grader would not talk like this.”

Lighting a candle

Muhammed Shtayeh, head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PICDAR) recognized that the Israeli occupation placed immense and paralyzing pressure on the Palestinian economy.

However, he pointed out that even under existing circumstances, there were Palestinian businesspeople and investors who were able to make profits.

Shtayeh described the conference as an “eye-opener” for actual and potential investors interested in investing in the occupied Palestinian territories.

“In the US, they say ‘business as usual, here it is ‘business as unusual,’ given the exceptional conditions and circumstances facing the Palestinian people and economy.”

“In the final analysis it is good to bring people from abroad to see their investments”

Shtayeh strongly denied that the conference was an economic bribe, saying it is always better to light a candle than to curse darkness.

The Quartet envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will give a speech at the conference, has been trying to effect an agenda based on giving economic development in the occupied Palestinian territory priority over resolving the hardcore issues defining the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, such as Jerusalem, Jewish-only settlements and the paramount right of return for millions of Palestinians uprooted from their ancestral homeland when Israel was created sixty years ago.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has also been pushing for an economy-first approach for the resolution of the Palestinian plight.

Peres apparently thinks that economic inducements could eventually convince a considerable segment of the Palestinians to be more “flexible” in negotiations with Israel.

Nearly all Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, vehemently oppose any deal with Israel not including a total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 as well as a just solution of the refugee plight pursuant UN resolution 194.

** Source: Palestine-Information Centre