The Palestine Investment Conference held from 21 until 23 May in Bethlehem has incited broad resistance from Palestinian popular organizations. In his invitation to investors appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wrote, “We are throwing a party and the whole world is invited.” The organizers performed a tour de force by putting “Revitalizing Gaza” on the agenda of the conference, explicitly excluding a debate on political issues. It is obvious that ordinary Palestinians, who are battling every day with the endless rigorous Israeli occupation, will find it hard to relate to this “festive occasion” heavily advocated by the Quartet and its Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, the Portland Trust and various other donors.
For the occasion the (PA) deployed 2,000 security personnel in Bethlehem during the conference. According to the Alternative Information Center, based in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the PA ensured that Fayyad and Blair’s party would not be spoiled by “the extensive Palestinian grassroots opposition and cynicism towards the conference. Local groups in the Bethlehem area were explicitly told to not organize protests or ‘there would be problems.’”
In addition, the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported the detention of dozens of people in Bethlehem as part of a security clampdown before the conference. Two sources in the Palestinian security forces confirmed to Maan that approximately 30 people had been detained and were being held in the Muqata’a, the PA’s headquarters in Bethlehem. Hamas told Maan about the 19 May arrest of 15 of its members who were suspected of planning political action in connection to the conference. One member of the security forces told Maan that on 17 May the security forces arrested about 80 people, mostly from the village of al-Khader, home to the convention palace where part of the conference is taking place. Some of the people arrested have been released, noted the same source to Maan.
Samer Jaber, a leader in the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Colonization in al-Khader said that “Many people were arrested, we don’t know the exact reasons.” Jaber criticized the clampdown in connection to the economic conference, “How can we talk about development when we don’t have the right to free movement?”
The organizers of the conference negotiated with Israel to facilitate the opening of the Allenby Bridge at the border with Jordan was until midnight 20 May, to allow the entry of the hundreds of Arab businessmen who attended the conference. Also at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv Israeli officials were present to ensure that Arab businessmen would not encounter the difficulties they would normally have to face, when entering the country. The visiting businessmen were granted special permits to tour Israel after the conference. The permits allow the participants of the conference to freely travel throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, a privilege that not many Palestinians and visitors to Palestine experience.
However, if these businessmen ever want to return they won’t have Israel, the PA, Tony Blair or the US helping them secure their visas and permits. It is telling that Israel allowed businessmen from Gaza to travel to the conference, instead of parents who haven’t seen their children and grandchildren for years, students who wish to study, or people who urgently need medical support. In a further demonstration of the real power behind the conference, signs emblazoned with the insignias of the state of Israel, the Israeli police and the Israeli military were posted at the Israeli checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem welcoming conference participants in English and Arabic, while the PA’s emblem was absent altogether.
Israel’s policy of deliberately maintaining the Palestinians’ dependence on its economy underlies its interest in supporting and ensuring the “success” of the Palestine Investment Conference. This fact is not lost on Palestinian organizations. In July 2005, the National Boycott Divestment Sanctions Steering Committee, representing over 170 Palestinian unions, associations and organizations, called in July 2005 for nonviolent punitive measures against Israel until it finally met its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law. Instead, the attendance of 40 official and non-official Israeli representatives goes against the boycott, divestment and sanctions call, as does the financial support to the conference of companies with strong links with Israel.
Israeli businessmen are hoping to do deals that will secure access of valuable Palestinian resources and markets, or that will enable them to access the huge, heretofore unwelcoming, Arab market through Palestinian interlocutors. American companies are major sponsors of the conference, including the technology company Intel. With roughly eight billion dollars of investments in Israel, Intel also built a factory in Iraq al-Manchiya, a Palestinian village northeast of Gaza that was destroyed in 1948. Another conference sponsor is Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm with strong relationships with US intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense.
Israel has another direct economic interest in increased Palestinian trade. In the current situation goods can only be imported and exported to Palestine through Israeli ports, crossings and airports. Palestinian businesses have to pay Israeli taxes and customs, artificially raising the price of goods and services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and filling Israeli government coffers. One of the issues to be discussed at the conference is the establishment of industrial zones, where Israel can invest and use cheap Palestinian labor. “Such zones would increase Israel’s domination over the Palestinian economy and reinforce the apartheid nature of Israel’s occupation,” according to the Popular Committees Against the Apartheid Wall.
Fayyad has stated that he would like to build a competitive free market in the Palestinian territories. Yet, the Palestinian NGO Network, uniting more than 120 organizations in the West Bank and Gaza, has challenged this rosy assessment by referring to the PA’s report to donor countries at a 2 May 2008 conference in London, which “revealed beyond any doubt that economic performance in 2007 and 2008 remained at a standstill, with a growth rate of zero percent.” The report also emphasized the increase in poverty rates since the beginning of 2008, and that unemployment rates have reached more than 22 percent according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, explaining, “These trends are also reflected in reports by the World Bank and the Humanitarian Coordination Office of the United Nations Secretary-General, which link the poor humanitarian situation with the economic devastation wreaked by the continued closure regime and siege enforced by the occupation authorities on the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”
According to the Palestinian NGO Network, it is impossible to achieve significant success on the economic level, without strategic, concerted action at the political level to transform the current situation. A process of interesting foreign investors in the Palestinian private sector should be linked to the overall national agenda aimed at liberation and independence from the occupation, within the framework of international legitimacy. The president of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, Muhammad Shtayyeh, spoke in support of this view in The New York Times, stating that “Without a political solution any chance of improvement will evaporate. Nobody will invest.”
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.
- New report critiques West Bank development projects, The Grassroots Palesitnian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (21 May 2008)
- Investors warned about access to occupied Palestine, Campaign for the Right to Entry (21 May 2008)