Palestine Investment Conference ends in Bethlehem – $1.4 billion in deals signed

Khaled al-Nehayan, Chairman of the Bin Zayed group in the U.A.E. said Friday afternoon following the closure of the Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem that “It has been a very big sucess for us (from the Emirates) to break this barrier to see the opportunities in Palestine. A similar conference was proposed a year ago, but it was not possible to go ahead because of the situation”.

He was apparently referring to the Hamas rout of Fatah security forces in Gaza, which led to a political coup in Ramallah when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas disbanded the National Unity Government in which Hamas shared power with Fatah.

This year, al-Nehayan said, the Palestinian Authority had done a very good job in making the preparations.

Al-Nehayan co-chaired the final thematic session of the Conference, on the Untapped Potential of East Jerusalem in which speaker after speaker called for more investment in the occupied Palestinian areas of the city.

The Emirates was not the only other Arab country which sent a delegation, al-Nehayan said — but he agreed that the UAE delegation had sent an unusually high-profile team. Why? “Because we believe in the Palestinian cause and whe have to support the Palestinian people — and we also believe there are investment oppourtunites here”, al-Nehayan explained.

France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner showed up, a little late, for the final closing plenary session. He said he had come because France had hosted the December Donor’s Conferece, at which $7.7 billion had been pledged for the Palestinian Authority — and he had promised at the time to be at the Palestine Investment Conference. The title of the Paris Donor Conference had actually included the words “for a Palestinian State”, Kouchner noted — the first time this wording had been included in the title of an international conference, he added.

In addition, Kouchner, France was taking over the Presidency of the European Union in a few weeks for the second half of 2008, and would be hosting an EU summit meeting in Paris in 13 July (a day before the French national day, or Bastille Day), at which the situation in Palestine might figure.

France “reiterates its support to the Palestinian Authority, including in its future dimension as a State”, Kouchner told the Conference.

“This conference is a first step”; Kouchner said, but added that he wished that French enterprises would have had a larger presence in the Bethlehem event. He also said that France should finish the (development) projects it had started in the region.

He referred to the presence of a delegation of Israeli businessmen at the Conferece, but none were actually visible.

“The obstacles to Palestoinian movement and access are still there — they should have been removed”, Kouchner said, “and nothing justifies that the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce in East Jerusalem remains shut. Nothing justifies the settlement expansion, either, which constitutes an obstacle to peace and an obstruction to Palestinian movement”.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told journalists in a closing press conference that $1.4 billion dollars worth of deals which had been previously prepared were signed at the Conference — including the announcemnet by the Palestine Investment Fund about the new telecommunications operations that will start operating at the end of this year”.

This should mean, Fayyad said, the creation of some 35,000 additional jobs.

Projects for the housing and real estate sector took the “lion’s share” of the contracts signed, for a total of some $530 million dollars.

“We are trying to enhance the capacity of our people to persevere until the inevitable end of occupation”, Fayyad said, “when we will reach our goal of living as a free people in a country of our own. But, until then, we should continue to do all we can to mobilize support for our people”.

East Jerusalem Businessman calls for more investment in Palestinian (East) Jerusalem

The Palestine Investment Conference – planned as a major component of the Annapolis Process – is taking place in Bethlehem from 21 through 23 May.

The American administration — and Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, known as “America´s poodle even when he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom — apparently still believe that encouraging investment in Palestine on the eve of state-creation would help jump-start the suppressed Palestinian economy and create enthusiasm for potential peace dividends.

But the situation has not developed as expected. The Annapolis Process is nowhere near where it was supposed to be, when the Investment Conference was proposed.

Nor were preparations for the Conference, but they were not too far off. Palestinian security officers and police men and women were liberally deployed in downtown Bethlehem – though many of them were brought in from elsewhere. One policeman apologized for not being able to give directions because, he explained, he was from Jericho. The electricity went off in the Media Center set up in the Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel, after the opening press conference, but a generator took over after some seconds, and the electricity was restored after several minutes.

Workers were putting final touches on a new Conference Center in Bethlehem up to the start of the Investment Conference, which had been constructed but left unfinished when economic conditions in the West Bank steadily worsened in the recent period. The Conference Center was built by the vastly-successful Athens-based company started decades ago by Palestinian refugees from Israel´s establishment in 1948, Consolidated Contracting Company (CCC), whose senior officials are participating in this week´s Investment Conference.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, head of the steering committee organized by the Palestinian Authority for the Conference, told journalists in Bethlehem just hours before the Conference´s official opening on Wednesday that he and his team had been given just 80 days to pull it off.

He said that registration was still open, but some 1,200 participants were expected – including, apparently, a large media contingent. Palestinian proposals for projects worth some $2 billion are being presented at the Conference, and a number of deals are ready to be announced on Wednesday and on Thursday, he told journalists.

Despite widespread skepticism, the Palestinian Authority – and a number of other Palestinian citizens – are putting on a brave face and trying to make the Conference a success. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the opening plenary on Wednesday afternoon, along with Sheikh Muhammad Bin Hamdan Al-Nahyan, and Quartet Representative Tony Blair, as well as the U.K. Secretary of State Douglas Alexander, the Swedish Minister of Trade Ewa Bjorling, U.S: Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmit, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Assistance Alexander Saltanov, and the Deputy-Director of the Middle East and Africa Bureau in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Shinsuke Sugiyama, among others.

AP has reported that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad believes the Conference is “our way of asserting our presence …We are doing what we can to change reality”.

AP has also reported that Palestinian-American businessman Sam Bahour, who lives and works in Ramallah, said: “The common sense way is not to jump through hoops, but to end this occupation and let the private sector develop naturally”.

Bahour, who is also an activist in the Campaign for the Right of Enty/Re-Entry to the Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt), a grassroots campaign “for the protection of foreign passport holders residing in/and or visiting the oPt”, In a statement issued by the Campaign, Bahour said that “the threat of being barred from entering the occupied West Bank by Israeli officials is likely to be foremost on everyone´s mind. Those hoping to actually invest in Palestine will be looking for answers regarding who will guarantee unhindered access in the future for themselves, their staff and the suppliers needed for investments to succeed in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) … Contrary to international law, Israel continues to exercise its control over entry and residency in the oPt in an arbitrary, capricious and political manner that seriously harms Palestinian economic, social and cultural life … Investors expecting future access to their investments are unlikely to have the U.S. Administration, the Quartet, and Quartet Special Representative Tony Blair regularly available to negotiate entry visas for themselves or for their staff”.

At the Conference pre-opening press conference, Abu Libdeh said in response to a question from a journalist that the Palestinians have “commitments from the Israelis to issue visas, the necessary multiple-entry visas, for businesspeople who want to invest – and to apply what is in the Oslo Accords”
PA Civil Affairs Ministers Hussein Ash-Sheikh indicated later to journalists that the Israelis have apparently agreed to allow serious investors a temporary one-year residency, leading to possible permanent residency and even the eventual issue of a Palestinian passport for those who invest in Palestine and who also successfully pass a preliminary residency period. Of course, until now, having a Palestinian passport would automatically eliminate the possibility of traveling in and out of the area via Israel´s Ben Gurion international airport – and that the only way in and out of the West Bank would be via the Allenby Bridge, a usually-difficult experience.

In response to another question, Abu Libdeh said that 137 businesspersons applied for permits to come to the Conference from Gaza – and of those, 108 travel permits were actually granted; 105 Gazans have actually managed to get to Bethlehem so far; 6-8 applications were rejected; and no answer was given for the rest. 300 businesspersons of Palestinian origin (mostly living in Jordan and in the UAE) were given entry permits, while only a few – actually, “less than 50” — were refused.

Maan News Agency also reported on Monday that Palestinian civil society organizations “have criticized what they called ´attempts to use the Palestinian people as a bridge … between the Arab world and Israel in the form of normalization´. They were referring to the Palestine Investment Conference to which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Bethlehem. The network of Palestinian civil society’s organizations and the federation of Palestinian charities as well as lawmakers Khalida Jarrar from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Mustafa Barghouthi, the secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative signed a joint statement saying: ´Speaking of industrial zones which the Israelis determine their location and legality will only serve the Israeli interests instead of solving the dominant unemployment problem amongst the Palestinians´.” According to the statement, ´the creation of an illusionary notion that there will be a peace agreement which will improve the economic situation´ will only deepen the feeling of frustration amongst the Palestinian people”.

Since the exchange of recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the launch of the Oslo Process, in 1993, donors – European, American, Japanese, and Arab — have thrown billions of dollars in aid at the Palestinians.

Some of it, aid organizations say privately – and sometimes even publicly — has simply gone down the drain.

This massive influx aid was intended – and was received – as a major incentive to both Palestinians and Israelis to make progress in negotiations. However, as their differences deepened, this money, probably inevitably, became both a carrot and a stick.

Massive Israeli military reprisals have often resulted in the great damage to the donor projects. And then what happened? The donors paid again, the projects were rebuilt in many cases – and then, in some cases, destroyed yet again.

In addition, financial chaos resulted after the American and European decision to withhold money from the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won the majority of parliamentary seats in a January 2006 election.

Donors have simply continued to supply more money – though more selectively, and conditioned on good behavior – investors have taken a very different and perhaps more fiscally prudent approach.
Donors pledged $7.7 billion in aid in December in Paris to the Palestinians over three years, though apparently not all of the pledges have actually been delivered.

Some of this money is apparently going to pay the costs of this Palestinian Investment Conference… Hassan Abu Libdeh, head of the steering committee organized by the Palestinian Authority for the Conference, told journalists in Bethlehem just hours before the official opening on Wednesday that the cost of this event was $3 million – about half of which was being covered by the event sponsors, who include American private companies Cisco, Coca Cola, Marriott, and Booz, Allen, Hamilton, as well as the British Development Agency (DFID), and Intel. The other half of the cost, Abu Libdeh said, is being paid by the Palestinian Authority directly.

Donor aid, of course, is very different, in both its aims and its intentions, from investment – which involves a sharing of both the risks and rewards.

And, one of the main question marks hanging over this Palestine Investment Conference is why, if investors – Palestinian, Arab and other – have not been willing to risk their money in the Palestinian territories for the last 12 years, would they be willing to do so now, when the situation looks grimmer than ever?

Donors pledged $7.7 billion in aid in December in Paris to the Palestinians over three years, though apparently not all of the pledges have actually been delivered – Condoleeza Rice made a recent appeal in the London meeting of donors early in May for promises to be paid up.

An apparently small amount — $1.5 million – will be going to pay the costs of this Palestinian Investment Conference. Abu Libdeh said at the pre-opening press conference on Wednesday that the cost of this event was $3 million – about half of which was being covered by the event sponsors, who include American private companies Cisco, Coca Cola, Marriott, and Booz, Allen, Hamilton, as well as France´s Alcatel, and the British Development Agency (DFID). The other half of the cost, Abu Libdeh said, is being paid by the Palestinian Authority directly – presumably with donor help.

Sami Abu Dayyeh, Managing Director of the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, was initially sceptical, but finally agreed to participate in the Palestine Investment Conference. Here’s how he explained this turn-around:

Q: Sami, you are scheduled to speak at the Palestine Investment Conference on a panel entitled “Investing in Palestine´s Treasures – A Discussion of Tourism Sector Opportunities”. What are you going to say?

A: Well, I´m going to expose the importance of the Palestinian territory and the future state for the religious market, how important it is, and also to encourage people to invest in the territories that we are directly controlling, because I think tourism will be our main income for the future, and this is something that we have to develop ourselves and invest – not in mega-projects, but small to medium size that we need to control rather than the projects themselves controlling us.

Q: I know that you´ve hesitated about participating in the Conference. Can you tell me why you hesitated, what your objections are, and why you changed your mind?

A: OK, my hesitation actually is not only talking to people – you know, talking to people is not a problem for me. But to present a project that I have in Jerusalem, I´m hesitant to present at that particular Conference for a simple reason: if our own people are not part of this, how could I ask somebody from abroad to be part of it, when all the Palestinians who are here to invest, they are not willing to discuss it or to go through further discussion with me on it? That´s the reason why I was hesitant. But, as a speaker, I´m going to try. I will talk. I will encourage people. I will tell them how good it is. But, with projects I prefer that our own people would have been involved somehow with the project that I have in Jerusalem. It would have made it even better for the people abroad to see that investors from the Palestinian side are also putting money also, over and above my own investment.

Q: Why are the Palestinians not putting money into such investments?

A: That´s a question which is puzzling. It´s a good project. You know, we talk about Jerusalem, and how important Jerusalem is for us in the long run, and yet, where is the money? Where are the investments? I´m not asking for alms or support, I want people to invest in something I´m investing my own time and money in.

Q: The tourism business, as you said, is very sensitive to politics, and group travel fell off when people felt threatened. But have you had other problems doing business here in East Jerusalem?

A: Um, not really. It´s just only lack of infrastructure. Of course, the Israelis are not doing much for East Jerusalem. They have their own agenda. But it´s our, also, duty for us to invest in Jerusalem. This is why, I think, I wouldn´t keep on blaming the Israelis for all the problems of East Jerusalem, even though it´s their policy [which is causing problems]. But there are things that are in our hands, and it´s up to us to develop. The lack of capital on the Arab side is a problem, because even those who had money, they didn´t invest it in Jerusalem, unfortunately, they took it out, because of the taxation system that our people are not aware of, and they are not used to paying taxes, or to pay the high city tax (arnona). All those things are a handicap in our mind. So, it is a problem. And also, too, the Israelis are controlling the permits for building. Only in the last ten years they made it possible for us to think of developing our side. It´s just only the time – the Intifada didn´t help us to do it correctly. The permit for the land, you know, I could have started with the project on the land in 2001. But, of course, with lack of funds, and the situation wasn´t encouraging, I kept on delaying it. But I´m ready now to reinvest – though I don´t want to put all the money by myself. I need a partner who will be willing to invest with me on equity. I don´t want anybody to give me loans. Again, to build a project in Jerusalem, it has to be over 80% paid up cash, and maybe then the rest maybe we can go through bank loans. But I wouldn´t dare to make big loans on a project for Jerusalem, because of the uncertainty of the future, the political risks.

Q: With the talk of dividing Jerusalem and making part of East Jerusalem the capital of a possible future Palestinian state, how do you see this area – Sheikh Jarrah, and Salaheddin Street – positioned?

A: Oh, it´s a gold mine, by all aspects. We are talking about the best location of Jerusalem. All the consulates are around here. It´s very close to Mount Scopus [where the Hebrew University is situated], Mount of Olives. It´s a clean area, it´s not crowded population-wise. So, you are talking about the best location in East Jerusalem, and it should be developed. OK, somehow I agree that it should not be heavily populated, just to keep the place as clean as possible with the least population. But it should be developed, at least, to make projects which will generate income for the rest of East Jerusalem people. Because, if we are to stay in Jerusalem, we have to create jobs. And tourism creates jobs. And this is something that we should all be sensitive towards.

[Sami later said that the Ambassador Hotel and the Ritz Hotel now support about 120-150 families of their employees, while the new project could support a minimum of 100 families, or 150 in extremely good times.]

Q: Do you think that more money should be going to East Jerusalem now than to the West Bank or Gaza?

A: Well, by logic, it should be more money coming to Jerusalem, because it´s the heart, if not the head, the everything, of the future Palestinian state. They talk about it – at least, they give us this impression, even though sometimes I have my doubts, because they never invested, and they´ve never done anything for East Jerusalem, only just branding it, making it a big brand – you know, East Jerusalem, the capital of the future Palestinian state. But, actually, nobody did anything up till now to help the locals to survive. They´ve been giving money here and there, but nothing to create jobs. And for us, it´s the economy that will make us survive, nothing else. We can be nationalist till Kingdom Come, but that will not give us bread on the table.

Q: By “they” you mean the Palestinian Authority?

A: Of course, the Palestinian Authority. It should be the Palestinian Authority, it should be Palestinian investors, it should be anybody who is concerned about Jerusalem. So far, nobody did anything. And this is something that bothers me. As a Palestinian, living in Jerusalem, making my money in Jerusalem, on my own I could do it, you know, and so on. But for the rest of the city, I didn´t see any support, coming from anywhere.

Q: What do you think are the chances for this conference, the prospects – do you know who´s coming. Do you have an optimistic perspective on the outcome?

A: Well, I don´t know. I haven´t been really asking too many questions, who´s coming who will be coming…but I hope that those who are coming will be concerned enough to invest in Jerusalem, whether it is for financial, or for our existence, it is a very important part of our future. Money should be spent in Jerusalem. Money, you know, I mean we take it for granted, Bethlehem, Jericho, Gaza, anywhere else, that we will do something. But the heart should be here. We should start from here and spread out. Maybe that might not be as easy as in the West Bank, but we should try before we complain, we should try. Because this is our heart and this is where we should be starting from.

Q: This conference originated as part of the Annapolis Process, and it was thought that the process would be rather further along than it is right now. Do you think it´s kind of crazy to go ahead with the conference as things stand?

A: I hope it will be worthwhile. From the beginning, I wasn´t encouraging it, to tell you frankly, because I didn´t see the political process going in the right direction. But now that it is happening, we might as well try. Disappointments wouldn´t discourage those who are trying to do something. After all, we have to give them a chance. Maybe, if they will succeed, that will be good for everyone. But, we have to be realistic, and think that no miracles could happen overnight. We have to fight for it.

Q: Today, there was a statement made by Mustafa Barghouti and Khaleda Jarrar, saying that this conference was or would be deceptive, and that it was urging normalization under occupation.

A: Well, we can always complain. We have to fight for it.

Q: Today, there was a statement made by Mustafa Barghouti and Khaleda Jarrar, saying that this conference was or would be deceptive, and that it was urging normalization under occupation.

A: Well, we can always complain. You know, I´m beyond this thing. I don´t think it´s worthwhile to discredit anybody when they´re trying. At least they are trying. But, you know, normalization – what is it for us? We have nothing, nothing, other than big hopes, only, and if we lose hope, believe me the situation will be worse.

Salah Ta'amri – Senior Fatah Leader – Governor of Bethlehem

As part of the Annapolis process, a big investment conference is to be held later this month. It was clearly expected that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were to be well advanced by this stage – but they are not. So, the conference will be taking place in a surreal landscape, where there are daily – and nightly – incursions into Bethlehem by Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli security services, almost always ending with arrests, sometimes with deaths. Bethlehem’s governor, the legendary Fatah commander Salah Ta’amri, this is like a scene from a Chekov play, yet, he says, the conference should go on.

Yet, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is now making a major push to boost attendance at this Palestine Investment Conference, and announced that she will be sending a delegation co-headed by private U.S. investors including Palestinian Americans, and a senior U.S. State Department Official.

But, a recent World Bank paper destined for donor nations meeting in London this week said that “While the PA (Palestinian Authority) has moved ahead with its economic reforms, albeit slowly, there has been little progress on relaxing movement and access constraints”. The report said that the impact of these restrictions, including hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, “cannot be overestimated”, Reuters reported. So, the $7.7 billion pledged by donors in December may not have the intended effect, without major change.

In this interview, Ta’amri reflects on the upcoming investment conference, on the current situation, and on the past and the near future.


Question: How are preparations going for the Palestine Investment Conference that will be held in Bethlehem from 21-23 May?

Answer: Many people have their doubts about the conference, because of the closure, because of the Israeli measures, because of the lack of mobility for the Palestinians, because of The Wall. So, many Palestinians have their doubts about the possibilities of success of such a conference.

I believe it’s good to have this conference. I think it reflects support for the Palestinian people, political support. There is, there could be an opportunity for some investors, Palestinian investors. But the least I expect from this conference is, as I said to the local committee for the conference in Bethlehem yesterday, we’ll assume that two families want their son and daughter to get married in Bethlehem, and they booked every room in every hotel in Bethlehem. That is good.

Of course, we don’t have very high expectations from such a conference, again, not because there are no fields for investment – in fact, there are many fields for investment – but because of the Israeli measures. Even you as a reporter have difficulties in movement. That makes you imagine the difficulties Palestinians go through, whenever they move from one town to another.

So, I hope the conference will convene. I hope some cooperation between non-Palestinian investors and Palestinian investors takes place. Most of the guests or the investors who are coming from abroad, most of them are Palestinians, living abroad, and some Arabs, whether from the Gulf or from the States, or Latin America, or Europe. I think that is good. I think that is good. It is badly needed at this time of duress.

Q: Do you know who is coming?

A: So far, we haven’t verified the list. Over 350 guests are coming, so far. So far.

Q: Will it just be a conference of businessmen, or will there be political officials as well?

A: No, it’s business.

Q: And, are there specific investment opportunities that will be offered to them?

A: Yes, I think there are investments [investment proposals] for about $1.8 billion, almost $2 billion dollars.

Q: Are these Tony Blair’s proposals, these investment proposals?

A: No, the proposals came from the private sector, mainly the private sector, mainly the private sector. So far, in Bethlehem itself we have two major investment areas – cloth making and stone factories, and the handcrafts for Christmas. And, of course, tourism is the main investment when we talk about Bethlehem. But, although it will be convened in Bethlehem, it’s for the whole of Palestine.

Q: Do you have a breakdown?

A: No, it all depends. It depends on how things go during the conference, who connects with whom. It all depends also on the PR work of every investor. We’ll help them comment. They will know about every investor, whether those who came from abroad, or the local investors, they will know about each other, they can connect, they can plan together. But it’s mainly the private sector.

Q: Have you had contact with the Palestinians who are coming abroad for this meeting?

A: Yes, of course.

Q: Why would they come now, if they haven’t been willing to invest before?

A. To tell you the truth, many of them were very enthusiastic to come over the past 12 years and invest here, especially in Bethlehem 2000. But, the deterioration in the political situation made them refrain, and many of them had to leave. Again, it’s the Israeli measures, it’s the political situation that reflects itself on the economy, the lack of progress on the political track, all those are elements that hinder and sabotage any plans for major investment in Palestine.

Q: Are there going to be any guarantees for these investments, risk guarantees?

A: Well, I have no idea. With all honesty, regarding the Palestinians yes, if you talk about the law, yes, investments are guaranteed, are protected by the law. But, again, the freedom of mobility is not in the hands of the Authority, it’s in the hands of the Israelis. The borders are in the hands of the Israelis. So, we cannot give guarantees of freedom of mobility. It’s in the hands of the Israelis. And even the progress at the political level, it’s in the hands of the Israelis.

Q: Even the special measures that are being adopted for this conference, to facilitate the passage of the guests – do you thing they’ll be sufficient to make people comfortable, are they going to be driven around in buses, escorted by Israeli military jeeps with flashing lights? Are they going to have to take everything out of their suitcases when they come across Allenby Bridge?

A: Well, it all depends on the Israelis, I told you. I have no idea. They say they will make it easy, etc., the same way they said about roadblocks. They said they removed many roadblocks. In fact, from what we see in Bethlehem, no roadblocks were removed. We still are delayed at the main roadblock on the back road (Wadi Nar) between Bethlehem and Ramallah. And we see roadblocks everywhere around Bethlehem. And The Wall is still creeping on. So, they promised to make things easy – that’s what Dr. Abu Libdeh told me. But so far we haven’t seen any changes on the ground.

Q: Did they tell you what specific measures they were going to use to make things easy?
Did they make anything clear?

A: So far, no. I don’t have contacts with the Israelis, so I depend on what my colleagues tell me.

Q: Even for this conference, you don’t have contacts with them?

A: No. I don’t have contacts with them.

Q: Is it your choice?

A: It happened that way. In the past I had contacts with them. When I was in a prison camp, I was the main negotiator; I had contacts with them when I negotiated the departure of the deportees from the Church of the Nativity. I met with many Israeli officials when I was in the Legislative Council, at their request. But as a Governor, no, I don’t have contacts with them. There is a liaison officer (on the Palestinian side) who’s in charge of contacts with them.

Q: Is it a satisfactory arrangement, do you think?

A: Well, I mean, as long as it is implemented, it will be satisfactory, I think. But, will it be implemented or not? We have to wait and see.

Q: When Tony Blair stayed overnight in Bethlehem, he was actually right by The Wall, by the main checkpoint – just in case. But, that same night, there were Israeli arrests of citizens…

A: Oh, the incursions are every night. Every day there are Israeli incursions in Bethlehem.

Q: It’s actually a little bit bizarre, because the hotel people and everybody involved in the tourism sector is ecstatic that all the rooms in Bethlehem are actually full now and have been, and yet at the same time these incursions are going on now while the tourists are – what, ignoring them? I don’t understand…

A: [Laughing]. It is the surreal theater. It’s one of Chekov’s plays. We Palestinians are used to working / walking on a tightrope.

Q: Is it something you think the tourists should just be ignoring?

A: Sometimes, we have to. Or else we’ll go bananas. At some point, you need to ignore the occupation. Just ignore them, as if they are non-existent! If we don’t do that, we will not move forward, we will not even leave our homes. We will not even leave our bedrooms, even. We breathe danger. We drink in danger. We walk in danger, surrounded by danger. We plan for our future when there is a siege or a blockade, or a curfew – we have to do so. We have to ignore them. And we do.


Q: How do you feel about the present state of negotiations?

A: I did not negotiate, so I don’t know. But, from the statements of both sides, I don’t see any progress. They say there is no progress. So…

Q: They also say, oh, it’s secret, we’re not telling the journalists, and we’re not making it public – but there’s really progress behind closed doors.

A: Well, I’m not a journalist. I’m one of the leading figures in the Authority, and in Fateh, and the PLO, and I know there is no progress. They speak about reaching an agreement before the end of President Bush’s term, but I don’t see how, I don’t see how.

Q: What is the President [Abbas] doing, then?

A: He is doing the impossible, trying to make a breakthrough in the situation. He cannot, he doesn’t have the luxury of giving in to despair. I think he will give it some time before he stops to reassess the situation and take a stand, whether to go on or to say goodbye to negotiations or to go to the international community and ask them to come and take over. Things are not moving anywhere.

Q: Is President Abbas making the decisions himself, or is there, does he have a group of close advisers…

A: No, we have the Council of the PLO, the Central and the National Council of the PLO. He has the advisers. He has Fateh with all the hierarchies of Fatah. So, no, he doesn’t work in isolation.

Q: So, even in the negotiations, every decision he will have to take …

A: Of course, he cannot take decisions by himself. Abu Alaa’ is a member of the Central Committee of Fatah, and he was the speaker of the Legislative Council, he is the main figure in the Fatah organization and mobilization, and he is the chief negotiator. So there’s a group of very intelligent, very capable, people with the President.


Q: Why did you not meet Jimmy Carter when he was here? Why didn’t he come to Bethlehem?

A: [Laughing] Maybe he’s not a believer, to come to the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know. You’d better ask him. He didn’t come to Bethlehem…maybe he doesn’t go to Church. Does he? I thought he was religious. I think he’s religious. I like him. I think I met him during the first elections, when I ran for the Legislative Council…no, it was his daughter who came to Bethlehem. I like Carter. He represents the American people the way the American people think themselves to be, which they are not.

Q: What did you make of his meetings with Hamas?

A: Well, that was his own business, I mean. He’s free to meet with whoever he wants to meet with. And his intentions were good, and the man should be judged by his intentions and motives, and his intentions were good and honorable.

Q: Do you have any word of what happening in Cairo in the negotiations among the Palestinian factions and Egypt about a cease-fire?

A: To tell you the truth, I didn’t pay it much attention.

Q: Do you think it’s hopeless?

A. Not hopeless, I think it’s sometimes it’s … there are so many words but no deeds, and many of the statements do not reflect genuine thinking or genuine intentions. I mean, to say that we need, to reach a truce is very important. It will help our people in Gaza, it will ease up things for them. It’s unfair to make our people in Gaza go through what they are going through. And, if the Egyptians manage to reach an agreement of reconciliation between Hamas and the Israelis, that would be good…The situation in Gaza is tragic, and it will explode sooner or later.

Q: It may explode sooner – the situation with the fuel is terrible…

A: The fuel and everything. You know, everybody in the world is complaining about the increase in prices of bread, wheat, fuel, etc., without being under siege. So, you can imagine how things are in Gaza.

Q: Hamas, according to Reuters, is asking the Association of Petroleum station owners to release the fuel stored in Nahal Oz, but they are refusing because the quantities are not sufficient, and it gives them security problems at their gas stations that nobody protects them from. And, in Ramallah, Mojahad Salama said yesterday that Hamas took fuel from the Palestinian Authority depot…it’s completely chaotic.

A: Yeah, well, Hamas is politically-motivated in Gaza, and I don’t think it’s in their interest to allow fuel to come into Gaza. I think they are mobilizing the people in Gaza.
[Interruption for a phone call]

I’m reflecting my own views. I think this dialog between Fatah and Hamas, and between others and Hamas, I think it’s a dialog between the deaf. I believe the practical solution is elections. If Hamas wins again, that means this is the will of our people. Let them take over. Fatah can turn into the opposition. I hope in the next elections, the result would be more balanced, not like the one which Hamas won by a large majority. Hamas didn’t really … Hamas spoke about reform more than they spoke about resistance. Many Fatah people went for Hamas in the elections, as if they are taking revenge at themselves, at Fatah, at the Authority. They wanted reform. It’s not true that they adopted Hamas’s strategy of suicide bombings, and escalation in the military field. In brief, in my view, the last elections reflected the mood of the Palestinian people at a certain moment, and not the will of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people were in a certain mood, they elected Hamas, now I hope it’s different. We need a more balanced Legislative Council.

Q: Are the next elections going to be for the next president, or for the Legislative Council?

A: Both, it should be for both, at the same time. I don’t think there would be a break-through in the relations, a positive breakthrough in the relations between Fatah and Hamas before the elections.

Q: Will Mahmoud Abbas run again?

A: I don’t really know. That’s premature to tell.

Q: His term was supposed to end in 2009, at the beginning of 2009, and now there are reports that he either has already, or is considering, extending it by one year, until 2010…

A. That’s new. It could be. I am reflecting my own views. My own view, my own conviction: this is a dialog between the deaf. My own conviction: we need to drag ourselves without losing hope until we reach the time of the elections, new elections.

Q: What was interesting in Jimmy Carter’s summary of his trip was that he said he added to the agreements he got from Hamas a statement saying they would accept a peace deal that was approved by an elected government, as an alternative to ratification through a referendum. His OpEd in the New York Times this week seemed to suggest that Hamas meant even a new elected government, not going back to the now-disbanded National Unity Government.

A: Well, no government can be elected. Governments are not elected, governments are appointed. It is the Legislative Council that is elected. Anyway, I believe any agreement with Israel needs the people’s support. And, I don’t think Hamas accepts that; they don’t want that. Anyway, the situation is complex. It is in Israel’s favor. This split between Gaza and the West Bank is in Israel’s favor. Hamas will not give up their power in Gaza. It seems that it is true, they want to represent an Islamic model for the world. I hope that will not be the case. Hamas turned its back to our heritage, national heritage. That was a big mistake.

Q: What part of the national heritage did they turn their back on?

A: We are Palestinian Arabs. We are a national movement who did not become part of any regional alliance. We were not part of these conflicts, we were the mediators. And it was one of Arafat’s merits that he did not take sides, he was a mediator. He was a mediator between Algiers and Morocco, between Libya and Egypt, between at some point Syria and Iraq, and at some time between Iraq and Iran, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But Hamas launched us into the middle of a regional conflict, andsided with Iran. That means we lost our ability to be mediators. That means our issue was brought back to square number one. And they turned their back to all the agreement which were endorsed by the international community. It was not easy for us to be accepted by the international community. I remember the time when we were boycotted, even as students. And to become members of the United Nations, and to attend the General Assembly in the United Nations, to have more countries recognizing the PLO than Israel – that didn’t come without a price, that didn’t come without hard work on our part. Hamas can’t turn its back on this, and Hamas should build on what we have achieved.


Q: What about the plans for the Fatah Seventh General Conference?

A: Sixth, you mean. I hope it will come soon.

Q: What’s the problem? It was supposed to have been held already…

A: Yeah, because we have to bring thousands of cadres in one place from all over the world, from Australia to Canada, from India to China to Europe to Africa, from everywhere we have to bring our central cadres.

Q: Where will it be held, then?

A: Well, that is to be decided. It’s not easy. In the past we convened in Syria…yes, and it was not easy. It needs protection. I mean, you have all the leading cadres in one place. That is not easy. That is dangerous.

Q: What do you think is the safe place to hold it?

A: We need to look for the safe formula. Then, the safe place.

Q: Is it being held up though, more for political disagreements about who will succeed whom, who will be elected, this reported disputed between the Old Guard and the Young…

A: That could be in the minds of some people. I belong to the Old Guard. But I want the conference convened. I’m keen to see younger leaders taking over. But that doesn’t mean every Old Guard has the same way of thinking. Nor every Young Guard has the same way of thinking. You will find different people with different views, with different motives. But on the whole, I think it will be convened. We had a very important conference in Bethlehem less than a month ago, when the district elected their own leading body. Something like 1,500 members convened. And it was free elections. They elected from the smallest framework to the largest, at the level of the district.

Q: Was there any change in the composition of the bodies?

A: Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Q: In what direction?

A: The old leading body, none of them came to the new leading body. Nobody came. And there are more women, which is good. There is a deeper representation of the community than before.

Q: Meaning?

A: I mean, the people from the villages could win, as well as people from the refugee camps, from Christians as well as from Muslims, which was good. And it was absolutely free, no intervention.

Q: And do these newly-elected younger members all have similar views, or are they very different from each other, and will have to find a common ground …

A: They are different. They are different. They are different from each other, they are different from [us]… Every generation has its own language. It applies to you, it applies to us, it applies to humanity. Every generation has its own language. Our generation had its own language. We loved poetry. We loved music. This generation, they talk computers. They breath computers, internet, etc. So it’s different, absolutely. They are different. Their minds are colder than our minds. We are more emotional. Our generation is more emotional than the new generation. We are more on the side of romanticism than the new generation. To us, 1 + 1 = 11. To them, , 1 + 1 = 2. Sometimes I feel that is the difference.

Q: In this new group that’s been elected, is there any difference between those who stayed here, and those who were on the outside and came back with Arafat?

A: No, I don’t think so. The only difference is in the collective memory. That’s all.
It is the collective memory that is different, that’s why it should be one of our objects to unify the memory, to create bridges between the collective memories of the Palestinians in the diaspora. The collective memory of Lebanon is different from the collective memory of the West Bank. The West Bank is different from Gaza, different from Syria, from Kuwait, etc. That’s the only difference – the collective memory.

Q: How do you think bridges can be built between these collective memories? Really, people here don’t know what you when through outside, they don’t know.

A: Well, by time they will know. By time, it will become part of our heritage.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: [Pause] Well, not deep regrets. I regret I smoked for 35 years.

Q: Have you stopped?

A: Oh, yes, six years ago. On small things, I have my own regrets, on small things. But not on major things in my life.

Q: And in terms of the movement, the Fatah movement, the Palestinian movement?

A: No, no, no, I have no regrets. I joined it when I was a kid, and I have no regrets. But on minor things, yes, I have regrets.


Q: Can I ask one last question? I know it’s a difficult one, and I’ve lost friends because of discussions of this very issue. But, when the matter was raised, before the Annapolis Conference, about the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the Palestinian reaction was so negative. I don’t understand…

A: Because it’s not a Jewish state, because there are non-Jews in it. And they are not a small minority.

Q: But for the people who feel insecure…

A: We are not going to respond to the Jewish paranoia. Every time they are paranoid about something, we have to cut our noses to please them. If they are paranoid, they’d better do something about it.

Q: But it doesn’t cost anything…

A: No, it does, to us it does.

Q: It doesn’t mean that the refugees can’t return. It doesn’t mean that the Arab citizens of Israel will be expelled…

A: Well, they cannot even talk about return.

Q. But if they feel deeply insecure about this …

A. That’s not our problem! No. That doesn’t show any kind of recognition of the Palestinian people’s rights by the Israelis. I mean, first of all, we pay the price for a crime that was not ours. We did not invent Nazism. Nazism was the invention of Europe, Christian Europe. And if Nazism won, we would have been second on the list to be uprooted, and terminated. We paid the price, the international community paid the price, not only the Jews. And that was not our invention. It was a European invention. Why should we pay the price for that?

Q: Because now, you have to live with them.

A: Yes, because we have to live with them, they have to accept the fact that, no, Israel is not a Jewish state, because when you say a Jewish state, that means tomorrow, yeah, go out! Leave! You will recognize us as a Jewish state, we do not want non-Jews amongst us.

Q: Maybe it doesn’t mean that …

A: Maybe it does.

Q: Can’t you ask for guarantees? Even international guarantees?

A: Well, we are not going to get any guarantees better than the guarantees – the mother and the four kids who were killed a couple of days ago, and the many Palestinian children who were killed, and the 12,000 prisoners who are in jail. No, I think the Israelis should deal with their paranoia, I think the world should also deal with their sensitivity and cowardice when it comes to Israel. Why should Israel get away with whatever they do?

We don’t hate the Jews. We hate occupation. It’s not my mistake, it’s not my fault that the occupiers are Jewish. We hate occupation. The minute they become non-occupiers, then we are not going to hate them. So, I believe this is a very sensitive issue to the Palestinians. We have our own insecurities. And this year we are celebrating 60 years of Nakbah. It started yesterday, and I don’t think Palestinians will forget their country, will forget their villages, the 380 villages which were uprooted, and disappeared from the face of the earth, for somebody coming from Poland living there.

They have the right to be afraid, they have the right…[No]. Their security lies in their positive and peaceful coexistence with us.

The saying goes: “We are doomed to be together”. We can turn it into: We are blessed to live together. It all depends on how do we educate ourselves, how do we accept each other.

But, coexistence as occupier and under occupation, like slaves and masters, it doesn’t go, it doesn’t work. Living under occupation is a form of slavery. And we cannot be, we don’t accept to be slaves forever. It’s whether we become free or not free. There’s no half-way between slavery and non-slavery.

To us, peace means freedom.


The Palestinians as party people

On Tuesday 29 April, Rice convened a press event in Washington, as the State Department reported in a press release, “to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the strategic importance of U.S. private sector investment in the West Bank. She was joined by leaders of the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership including Chairman Walter Isaacson, Co-chairs Jean Case and Ziad Asali, and USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore. The Partnership is working to support the Palestinian Authority’s upcoming Palestine Investment Conference, which will be hosted by Prime Minister Fayyad on May 21-23, in Bethlehem. The purpose of the conference is to showcase investment opportunities in the Palestinian territories and thereby improve the economic and social living standards through increased investment in the Palestinian economy”.

The State Department press release added that the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership “is developing quick-impact projects to promote job creation in the West Bank; projects include the creation of an Arabic-language call center in East Jerusalem and the establishment of a mechanism to attract foreign investment in the Palestinian private sector. The Partnership is also working to launch five youth development and resource centers in the West Bank”.

Rice said at the Washington press event that, as part of the Annapolis process, “there is also a very strong commitment to do something about the economic prospects for the Palestinian people, a people who are very well educated, many of them, very ambitious, many of them, but where economic opportunity has very often been lacking”.

Rice is also expected to try to rally support for the investment conference while she attends a meeting of donors to the Palestinian Authority, and with the Quartet, in London on 1-2 May.

The website of the Palestine Investment Conference, here , contains a greeting from Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, saying “We are throwing a party, and the whole world is invited. This conference is a chance to show a different face of Palestine: a Palestine conducive to economic growth and international investment. I welcome you to Palestine for a chance to enjoy our hospitality, and to learn first hand that you can do business in Palestine”.

Fayyad’s website greeting also says that this will be the “first high profile investment conference ever held in Palestine”, and that “it promises to be a historic event”. Fayyad added that the conference “will jumpstart a process of integrating Palestine into the global economy”.

“The time has come to invest in Palestine”, Fayyad added. “The international community showed its overwhelming support of the Palestinian economy in Paris last December, and PIC-Palestine intends to continue this process of creating an environment conducive to investment-led growth”.

While the conference is a private sector event, it will have full support from the Palestinian Authority, Fayyad said.

The Israelis have promised to facilitate the entry of investors to attend this conference.