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Published: May 26, 2009

 
 

Promoting Entrepreneurship in the West Bank

But Fayyad wanted more than U.S. corporations involved. In our first meeting, he was asked which investors and businesspeople he wanted to target: those from the United States and Europe, from Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, from Israel, or from the Palestinian diaspora. “All of the above,” he replied. He and the Palestinian leadership also insisted that the conference include entrepreneurs from Gaza and East Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank. At that point, we knew things were about to get even more interesting — and more complex.

As it turned out, Fayyad’s instincts were correct. Many Arab investors from throughout the Middle East were spurred by their emotional ties to the Palestinian people, and the inclusion of Gaza strengthened that connection. From the Palestinian diaspora alone, hundreds of people responded to Fayyad’s call for engagement. There were investors from Saudi Arabia who had left the West Bank in the late 1960s, young entrepreneurs from Jordan who had never seen the villages that their parents had spoken of, and hundreds of successful businesspeople eager to make their mark. The Gazans who attended saw firsthand the community of investors ready to return to Gaza whenever the political and security situation might allow.

But to get to the conference, the Arab nationals, the people from Gaza, and the members of the Palestinian diaspora community all needed visas or permits issued by Israel, which controls security for the West Bank. As Ziad Asali, a cochair of the U.S.–Palestinian Partnership, told us, “It all depends on the Israelis. If they want it to happen, it will. If they don’t want it to happen, it won’t.”

It wasn’t hard to predict the Israeli officials’ first reaction to such a request: How could they be sure this influx of Palestinians would not contain terrorists capable of striking the West Bank or Israel? And why should Israel take such a chance for a conference promoting business investment, with no direct political connection?

The group addressed these concerns by inviting the Israelis to be part of the megacommunity. Palestinian and Israeli officials met early in the process. Once again, the economic argument was convincing. Key Israeli leaders saw that it was in their vital interest to support this event, to aid in the development of entrepreneurs and a Palestinian middle class. And even though the visa approval process stalled at times, and took until the very last minute to be completed, the Israeli government followed through.

This spirit of cooperation extended to the attitudes of the individual Israelis who worked with us. For example, the Palestinians continued to worry that, despite Israel’s agreement on visas, participants would be treated poorly. They might be forced to undergo special searches, be detained at Ben-Gurion Airport for hours, and perhaps be turned away. But that did not happen. The Israelis were unfailingly polite, although there was always the threat of tensions flaring. At one point, several Israeli airport security people took a group of us aside and said they wanted to question us. Some members of the Palestinian diaspora began to protest. But it turned out that the Israelis simply wanted to ensure that when we exited the country, we were given the proper attention and access.

The civil society within Palestinian communities also had to be brought into the megacommunity fold. As plans for the conference became public, many residents of the West Bank, particularly those in Bethlehem, expressed alarm. As we learned from Hasan Abu-Libdeh, the conference’s executive director, many were concerned that such a major event would lead to stepped-up Israeli security measures that would make getting around in the West Bank even more difficult than usual. Some questioned why Israeli businesspeople were invited; others were suspicious of the United States’ motives; and still others worried that investors might promote projects that would exploit, not help, Palestinian workers.

 
 
 
 
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