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Palestinians seek economic disengagement through West Bank port

Palestinian traders demand the establishment of a land port in Palestinian territories without Israeli conditions.
Workers load boxes of tomatoes onto a truck at a wholesale vegetable and fruit market in the West Bank village of Beita, near Nablus September 2, 2012. Once the mainstay of the local economy, Palestinian agriculture in the rocky West Bank is in decline, with farmers struggling to protect both their livelihoods and their lands. Deprived of water and cut off from key markets, farmers across the occupied territory can only look on with a mix of anger and envy as Israeli settlers copiously irrigate their own pl

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hussein al-Sheikh, the head of the General Authority for Civil Affairs, discussed the establishment of a land port in the West Bank during a meeting with the private sector at the Ramallah and al-Bireh Chamber of Commerce and Industry Oct. 7. The land port would receive goods entering the Palestinian territories from Israeli ports.

“There is an Israeli agreement to establish this port, but on their terms, which has delayed its establishment so far,” Sheikh said.

He added that Israel would only allow the entry of certain goods. The Palestinian side rejected this and demanded customs clearance for all goods imported by Palestinian traders to this port.

This problem is not new. The Palestinian-Israeli agreement in September 2012 to establish this port also ended in failure and without an agreement on the location of the port.

This time, however, Sheikh said if the port was established it would be in the town of Tarqumiyah, where the Palestinian Authority’s Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zones Authority (PIEFZA) is located, and it would be affiliated with the Tarqumiyah industrial zone. 

PIEFZA head Ali Shaath said that the authority is making arrangements to establish the port within the industrial zone in Tarqumiyah. The port zone will consist of three sections: the factories, the land port area and a logistics zone serving both sides. The industrial zone will be completely funded by China.

Shaath told Al-Monitor, “There is no official approval so far for the implementation of this phase of the project, but everything’s ready to operate the industrial zone in case of an agreement with Israel to this effect.”

According to the PIEFZA plan, this zone will receive goods imported from abroad to be stored in silos for six months.

Nasser Salahat, director of the Ramallah-based Ryan Center Beauty, believes that the Palestinian land port would solve problems they face with imports.

“We are working on importing goods to be distributed during the summer seasons. But sometimes because of the delay in Israel ports, these goods expire and we miss out,” he told Al-Monitor. “We have been waiting for cosmetic and beauty products that are still stuck in the Israeli port for seven months.”

The delay means major losses for traders who must pay daily for each delay, not to mention goods that have limited shelf lives. 

Salahat said Israel confiscates some goods for years and even destroys them. His cosmetics cannot bear the price markups when they hit the markets, yet Palestinians often pay more for goods due to the holdups at Israeli ports. Such goods become more expensive than their Israeli alternatives, according to Abdel Ghani al-Atari, director of al-Bireh Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

Atari told Al-Monitor that this port, if established, would be a step toward Palestinian traders disengaging from Israel. 

As for the goods that Israel refuses to receive at the prospective Palestinian port, Atari said, “There have been talks about banning alcohol and tobacco commodities that have very high customs.” This suggests that Israel would prefer this port not be established.

Hebron, which is a hub for several industries, would benefit from the establishment of such a port.

Abdo Idris, the head of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the port would be a leap forward for the Palestinian economy. Israel controls all transport operations, he told Al-Monitor. It also imposes on traders the cost of transport, storage and customs clearance. The further delays in the release of the goods increases the prices of commodities. 

“The establishment of a port means real economic disengagement from Israel,” Idris said.

However, this disengagement must not be connected to the security and political developments between the two sides, according to Idris, and it requires assurances and international monitoring.

"It is difficult to invest a lot of money in the port without guarantees that it will not be stopped by Israel for security reasons or in the event of any political dispute," Idris said. "We need clear arrangements not to slip into the impasse of the Paris Protocol again."

Sheikh's announcement of the land port coincided with the expansion of work surrounding exporting Palestinian goods to Israel as part of a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, known as “Door to Door,” which came into effect last June, to accelerate the arrival of Palestinian goods to Israeli markets.

Idris said the agreement, made through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority and the Israeli Civil Administration, states that transport vehicles with Israeli plates can transfer goods from factories participating in the agreement to Israel without being stopped or delayed.

According to Idris, the plan is now to expand the scope of work to include more companies from Hebron and other governorates. This gives the Israeli side the upper hand in the agreement, thus provoking the reservations of Palestinian traders.

“This project, on the one hand, increases the economic dependency of Israel and disrupts the Palestinian transport system," Idris said. "According to the agreement terms, transport is carried out via Israeli vehicles only. We want to be on par with the Israeli side in such economic agreements so they can be truly feasible.”

Between demands for a fully sovereign Palestinian land port in the West Bank, and improved conditions for export agreements to Israel, hundreds of outstanding economic issues remain. Such issues were supposed to be regulated by the Paris Protocol, signed in 1994, yet they are open for deliberation as Palestinians demand they be amended.

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