“An investment conference is a strange thing in the West Bank,” Abu-Libdeh told us. “We have political gatherings, but people don’t understand what an investment conference is. They don’t understand the difference.”
This unfamiliarity translated into a real possibility of street protests in Bethlehem that could disrupt the conference and make already-uncertain investors even more skittish. The Palestinian leadership reached out to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and to the local mayor, making Bethlehem part of the process. Conference staff members met regularly with community groups during the five weeks leading up to the event. They walked these groups through the plans and explained the underlying purpose of the conference, always stressing that it was not political in nature. They set up an exhibit hall outside the conference so that local shop owners might display their wares. The conference itself became an opportunity to display the pride of Bethlehem. And when the time came, the civil reception was peaceful and enthusiastic.
In a typical megacommunity project, when business, government, and civil society are engaged, all the elements are in place. But nothing in this part of the Middle East is ever so simple. A great threat remained from one group that did not fit neatly into any megacommunity category: Hamas, the Palestinian faction that President Mahmoud Abbas had ousted from his government in June 2007 following violent fighting and that presently controls Gaza. Hamas had in a sense operated in all three roles: It had grown out of civil society, it had run successful political campaigns, and it had even maintained a businesslike role in some of its community enterprises. Yet as a designated terrorist organization, it had also engendered violence. Hamas leaders certainly knew that if they staged a terrorist attack in or near Bethlehem and disrupted the conference — a real fear of the organizers — it would be a serious blow to their opponents in the Fatah-led government of Abbas and Fayyad.
Hamas had an additional motive for attack: The conference involved a degree of normalization of relations with Israel, its bitter enemy. But in the end, no violent attack took place. We cannot claim to know exactly why, but we can draw some inferences from the fact that a delegation from Gaza participated. The conference also included a session on opportunities in Gaza, even though no one could go in or out of the Gaza territory at the time. Perhaps the Palestinians had made it clear that opportunities were being presented from which everyone might gain. Or even more powerfully, perhaps they made it clear that everyone, if they wanted, could be part of the story.
You Can Do Business Here
In May 2008, the conference occurred without a hitch. Though only a few hundred participants were expected, more than 1,500 showed up in Bethlehem. Organizers had set their sights on modest, mostly symbolic investments. We heard Abu-Libdeh tell potential investors, “If you invest your penny in Palestine, you will be able to make some money. Maybe not as much as somewhere else, but you will be able to help a whole nation to survive.” We were delighted and astounded to learn that nearly US$1.5 billion in venture capital was pledged.
A collage of sights and sounds from the Bethlehem conference has stayed with us. On the first day, a surge of participants exceeded the capacity of the ballroom, almost forcing Palestinian President Abbas to stand. Participants walked around in a daze, many with tears in their eyes, marveling that they were “back in Palestine.” On the second day, we often saw discussions of a deal end with an embrace. At a cultural evening under the stars in Manger Square, the entire city turned out to watch the festivities and the Gaza delegation danced until dawn. And excursion trips to Hebron, Jerusalem, and Nablus ensured that participants visited more of Palestine than just Bethlehem, and saw firsthand the scope of both opportunity and need. And yet for all the emotion surrounding the conference, it was very much about business: about meaningful opportunities, the competitiveness and creativity of Palestinian entrepreneurs, and the enthusiasm and capabilities of a young workforce.