Israel, Palestinians to announce economic projects – Blair

The Palestinian prime minister and the Israeli defence minister will announce a number of economic projects that could create tens of thousands of jobs for Palestinians and give a sense of progress on the ground, international Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Sunday. Among the projects will be a Turkish-sponsored industrial park in the southern West Bank, a sewage project in northern Gaza and road construction in the West Bank, a Palestinian official said.The projects are scheduled to be unveiled Monday by Blair, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

The projects are “designed to give some sense things could change on the ground”, Blair said in a joint news conference in Ramallah with Fayyad and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Blair did not provide details, but earlier told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche that the projects, if successful, “will represent tens of thousands of jobs for the Palestinians”.

Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres met in Turkey to discuss the establishment of a Turkish-sponsored industrial park in the West Bank. The three sides also signed a framework agreement for the park.

Israeli approval of an aid project in Gaza would be particularly significant. Israel virtually sealed Gaza’s borders in June, following the violent takeover of Hamas, and since then has only permitted food and medicine to enter. In September, Israel designated Gaza “hostile territory”, setting the stage for further sanctions.

The sewage project in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya is seen as urgent. Last year, one of the sewage basins near Beit Lahiya collapsed, flooding a village with waste and killing five people.

The closure of Gaza, which followed more than a year of partial economic sanctions against the Hamas-led government there, has deepened despair and driven up prices.

Palestinian government officials say about 75 per cent of Gazans are now poor, up 10 per cent from the summer.

After the fall of Gaza to Hamas, Abbas set up a moderate government in the West Bank, headed by Fayyad and recognised by the international community.

Fayyad on Sunday reiterated a demand that Israel open Gaza’s borders. “What is happening in Gaza is of great concern to us, and something has to be done in a hurry,” Fayyad he said, adding that his government would be willing to take control of the Palestinian side of those passages.

Fayyad is preparing a new Palestinian appeal for international aid for 2008-2010, to be presented to a gathering of donor countries in Paris on December 17.

Fayyad did not say how much money he’ll request, but said earlier this month that he’ll ask for monthly budget support of up to $120 million for two to three months, until pledges for a 2008-2010 development plan start coming in. Fayyad said Norway agreed Sunday to give the Palestinian Authority $31 million in budget support.

Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000, the Palestinian economy has been severely hampered by tight Israeli travel restrictions, meant to stop militants.

The World Bank has said Palestinian economic recovery and decreased reliance on foreign aid are closely linked to a lifting of travel restrictions.

As part of the “road map” peace plan, which is being revived in parallel to the US-hosted Mideast conference later this month, Israel is supposed to remove some roadblocks and freeze construction in West Bank settlements, while the Palestinians are required to disarm militants and do more to prevent violence against Israel.

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