Palestinians woo investors at Bethlehem conference
BETHLEHEM(AFP) Hundreds of business and political leaders converged on the biblical town of Bethlehem on Wednesday for a conference aimed at boosting the occupied West Bank’s stagnant economy through private investment.The first-ever Palestine Investment Conference aims at spurring investor interest by showcasing business opportunities and projects.

Deputy US Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, who is leading a US delegation to the three-day event, said President George W. Bush’s administration hopes the conference will bolster moves to establish a Palestinian state.

About 1,200 business leaders — including 500 Arab and foreign participants — are expected to attend the conference, which will host French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Middle East Quartet envoy, Tony Blair.

Some 109 projects costing about two billion dollars will be presented by Palestinian business leaders to the potential investors.

“Two billion dollars may seem like a modest sum but in Palestine it would lead to the creation of 50,000 jobs over a period of three to five years if these projects are undertaken,” said conference director Hassan Abu Libdeh.

Most of the projects to be presented involve infrastructure and housing,” he added.

Moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was due to open the conference later on Wednesday.

The idea of the Bethlehem gathering was launched at a Paris conference of donors in December.

The donors pledged 7.7 billion dollars in assistance for the Palestinian territories, but by early May, only 717 million dollars had been actually paid out.  (Hamas must stop using the money to build kassam rockets and bombs-then they will get money for aid.)

Since 2000, the World Bank says the Palestinian economy had transformed from one being driven by investment and private sector productivity, to one sustained by government spending and donor aid.

“After a good performance in the latter 1990s, the fragile Palestinian economy entered a gradual downward cycle of crisis and dependence,” the bank said in a report last month, which also said economic growth would be stagnant in 2008.

The West Bank’s economy is crippled by more than 500 Israeli checkpoints which hamper movement throughout the occupied territory. (stop the terror-checkpoints come down, not until then)

Israel set up these roadblocks after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000 and says they are necessary for security reasons.

Israel recently announced the removal of some of roadblocks, and Washington acknowledged some improvements, “but more certainly is needed to tap the potential of the Palestinian economy,” Kimmitt said on Tuesday.

Abu Libdeh said the Israeli government would not be represented at the conference but several Israeli business executives were expected to attend.

The Palestinian Products ‘made in Palestine’ are exempted for tax in Arab countries, in Europe and the United States,” he said.inian economy minister, Kamal Hassuneh, said foreign investors would find advantages in investing in the territories despite the inconveniences.

There has been strong backing for the conference from the United States, with major US companies Intel and Cisco among the sponsors.

Jake Walles, the US consul in Jerusalem, expressed optimism about the initiative to encourage more investment in the West Bank.

“Countries that have resources and that have an interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state need to put those resources to use now in order to lay the groundwork for the establishment of that state,” he said.

Washington has been pushing for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace accord before Bush, who last week visited the region for a second time this year, leaves office in January.

Long-dormant peace talks were revived at a US-sponsored conference in November but little tangible progress has been achieved since then.

© 2008 Agence France-Presse


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