Bethlehem investment conference raises $1.4 billion

May 23rd, 2008 - 9:46 pm ICT by admin  

Bethlehem (West Bank), May 23 (DPA) A key international investment conference in Bethlehem, aimed at boosting a Palestinian economy emerging from years of violence, has raised $1.4 billion, Acting Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad said Friday. Participants at the conference agreed to invest some $650 million in a new mobile phone company, Watanya, which is to compete with the only Palestinian mobile phone company currently operating in the Palestinian autonomous areas - Jawal.

They also pledged to invest $530 million in real estate, $100 million in industry, $65 million in Information Communications Technology (ICT), $20 million in insurance and $12 million in food processing, Fayyad told the closing session of the three-day conference Friday.

Organizers had hoped to raise some $2 billion, but they nevertheless hailed the conference, planned in just three months, as a success.

Over 1,300 businessmen, more than expected, attended, the vast majority of them Arabs and Palestinians from abroad, but also Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Japanese and others.

The results of another 46 meetings between Palestinian and foreign businessmen on the sidelines of the conference, which could yield more money, were not yet known, Fayyad pointed out.

He added that the $1.4 billion already raised would produce 35,000 new jobs, all in the private sector.

“This conference is not the end. It’s only the beginning and it’s only one step toward creating a sustainable economy,” Fayyad said.

He said he was “pleased” with Israel’s cooperation, which had facilitated the entry of Arab and foreign guests through its border crossings with Jordan. Israel had also lifted some military roadblocks near Bethlehem to smooth travel to the southern West Bank city.

“The question is, if this was done for this conference, why can it not be done on an ongoing basis and why can’t our citizens move freely and travel throughout the Palestinian areas?” Fayyad said.

Since the current Palestinian Intifada (uprising) erupted in late 2000 amid a deadlock in peace negotiations, Israel has set up dozens of military checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the West Bank. Israel says they have helped prevent scores of suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis.

But the travel restrictions have also paralyzed the Palestinian economy, shooting up the prices and hours of goods transportation and forcing businesses to shut down. Many Palestinians who worked in Israel prior to the Intifada also lost access to their jobs, adding to the high unemployment.

But in contrast to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, violence in the West Bank has died down to a large degree, and Israel has promised to gradually remove bottleneck roadblocks, as part of the revived peace process with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Building the Palestinian economy is seen as a key pillar of the revived, US-sponsored peace process, with US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stating repeatedly that improved living conditions will help boost popular support for Abbas, at the expense of radicals.

A month after Olmert and Abbas agreed in Annapolis, Maryland in November to revive the peace talks, the international community pledged a record $7.7 billion in aid for the Palestinians at a key donors’ conference in Paris.

Fayyad, himself an internationally-respected economist, said his goal was to create a “positive reality on the ground” and this “conference is a positive reality”.

He added to loud applause: “I hope we will meet again in the next conference, in Bethlehem and if not in Bethlehem, then nearby, in Jerusalem, and this is our message to the world, that we want to meet next time in Jerusalem, the capital of our independent Palestinian state.”

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