NEW YORK (JTA) — Even as Israeli and Palestinian leaders argue about the conditions that must be in place for a return to the negotiating table, they are striking similar tones on the need for economic development.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad unveiled an economic plan last week intended to bring about a stable, independent Palestinian state within two years, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking for months about the need for an “economic peace.”
Some local Israeli and Palestinian officials aren’t waiting for the rhetoric to translate into action. They’re taking matters into their own hands.
This week, the Jewish mayor of a region in northern Israel adjacent to the West Bank announced a plan with the governor of the West Bank city of Jenin for a joint industrial zone, coexistence projects and a sports league that would bring together the region’s Israeli and Palestinian children.
“We believe that life in the Middle East can be different,” said Danny Atar, the Jewish mayor of the Gilboa Regional Council, a mountainous area of Israel of 22,000 people located between Jenin and the Israeli city of Beit Shean. “We’re taking responsibility and combining politics with economics. We are building an industrial park that will provide employment for 15,000 Palestinians and 2,000 Israelis.”
The plan is unusual not only because it represents a coordinated effort between local Israeli and Palestinian officials, but also because it involves the Palestinian governor of a city that until recently was known as the suicide-bomber capital of the West Bank and because the project is being supported by Jewish groups in the United States.
Jenin’s governor, Qadoura Qadoura, says now is the time for cooperation.
“No two people can live beside each other while one is prospering and the other is not,” he said.
Qadoura and Atar, along with Atar’s Israeli-Arab deputy, Eid Saleem, are on a U.S. tour this week trying to sell their idea to the Jewish public and win investors for the project.
The plan calls for establishing a joint Israel-Palestinian industrial park just inside the West Bank that will manufacture products such as olive oil and packaged salad greens to be exported to overseas markets via Israel. It also involves setting up cultural centers to teach Hebrew to Palestinians and Arabic to Israeli Jews, organizing women’s empowerment courses and holding sports tournaments for children from both communities.
“The plans are already all set up,” Atar said at a news conference Monday at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York. “It is in my own benefit as an Israeli that the Palestinians do well, and we hope that two years from now it will start operating. We will provide the infrastructure from the Israeli side, but this is their project. It is entirely up to them to make it succeed, and that makes all the difference.”
Robert Zwank, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut who organized the tour, says he hopes the plan will be extended to other parts of Israel and the West Bank.
“As a bottom-up initiative, it has to be supported by people in the private sector,” he said in a phone interview.
Seven years ago, few could have imagined Jenin as a model of coexistence. A hotbed of militancy from which Palestinian terrorist groups dispatched suicide bombers to strike Israeli cities, Jenin was the site of a 2002 Israeli army incursion that left many dead on both sides and leveled parts of the city’s refugee camp.
Now, however, Jenin is one of the places Palestinian and U.S. officials tout as a model of success for a revamped Palestinian security force, and even some Israeli officials speak of a changed atmosphere in the city.
“I can walk around Jenin without a guard, without any of Qadoura’s people,” Atar said. “It is now a paradigm of good security and good governance.”
Qadoura, a member of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party, says the project will help bolster moderates among Palestinians and weaken support for Hamas and its radicalism.
“We have our radicals and it is of concern, but when we have over 50 percent unemployment and 6,000 graduates without work, then they become targets for radicals,” Qadoura said.
This isn’t the first attempt at a joint Palestinian-Israeli industrial project. Perhaps the best known is the industrial park at the Erez Crossing, on the north end of the Gaza Strip. Once a thriving commercial area that provided employment for thousands of Palestinians, it now lies vacant following repeated attacks by Hamas on the facility.
At their meeting Monday in New York, Atar said his project would not suffer the same fate as the Erez park.
“This is not an intergovernmental project,” he said. “Our aim is to encourage the private sector to invest.”
Atar adds, “What other alternatives are there, to have nothing in the news but how many Palestinians or Israelis were killed?”