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Open for business.

The Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip may be no nearer to establishing an independent state, but they are anxious to start setting up trade links with Europe without delay. Quite apart from generating revenues, the initiative is designed to show the world that an independent Palestine would be economically viable - especially now that Israel threatens to curtail economic ties with the Occupied Territories.

PALESTINIAN BUSINESSMEN and farmers in the Occupied Territories in the West Bank and Gaza have launched a trade promotion drive in the European Community which one prominent Palestinian businessman, Hanna Siniora, president of the Jerusalem-based European-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, describes as "the economic aspect of the intifada".

Over the last two decades, Palestinian exporters have been vigorously lobbying for their products and services to be exported directly through their own agencies (as opposed to Israeli ones) to markets in the European Community. Palestinian exporters still face persistent obstacles put in place by the Israeli authorities -- including subtle but telling restrictions on the movement of goods, curfews at critical hours which are not waived for exporters to carry out their genuine business, and the rotting away of perishables such as fruit and vegetables and foodstuffs as a result of the rigid Israeli security rules.

Encouraged by the success of the first-ever Palestinian Trade Fair held in London in February, Palestinian businessmen are setting up a pioneering private trade promotion company in London which will be advised initially by DeCTA (the Developing Countries Trade Agency), the business consultancy arm of the British government's Overseas Development Administration (ODA). The company, which will be capitalised at about $2m, will promote goods and services from the Occupied Territories and if successful will be the forerunner to similar companies in other European capitals.

The London trade fair, and the Palestinian export drive into Europe, has been organised by the European-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce with the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce and the support of DeCTA. "We are resisting our occupation as everyone knows, but we are also steadily building up our infrastructure for our future needs, by which time we shall be able to show everyone how much we deserve our own legitimate place in world trade," Siniora says. "Of course, we are a threat to Israeli exports, and as such we must expect obstructive reverberations."

For the Palestinians, the London fair carried an added political significance. Through the agricultural, consumer and light industrial products on display, they are trying to highlight to the world that the Palestinians are an industrious and enterprising nation and that a future Palestinian state would be economically viable.

Palestinian-British trade relations already exist, but the context of the Israeli occupation and restrictions has always to be taken into account. The Palestinian-owned Jerusalem Cigarette Company (JCC), for example, has a wholly-owned subsidiary, the Edinburgh Tobacco Company (ETC) in Scotland, set up in 1990, which markets about 5% of the "Capital" brand cigarette production of JCC in Britain.

According to ETC's managing director, Issa Alami, most Palestinian producers from the Occupied Territories are too small and need help to market and distribute their products abroad. Hence the rationale of the trade promotion agency. Palestinian firms also produce citrus fruit and vegetables in Gaza, glassware and handicrafts in Hebron, wood carvings and garments in Bethlehem, foodstuffs, textiles and leather goods in the West Bank. The Palestinian Higher Council for the Arab Tourist Industry is also trying to encourage European tourists to use Palestinian tour operators and hotels for visits to the Holy Land and resorts at the Dead Sea.

EC-Palestinian trade, however, is not the normal channel of commerce between Europe and the Occupied Territories. First, Palestine as a country does not officially exist. Second, the strong pro-Israeli political and economic lobbies in almost all the European states forces governments to be wary of accusations of anti-Israeli policies. At an official level at least, EC-Palestinian trade relations are confined to consultancy, support for occasional promotional exhibitions and development aid.

Britain hopes to spend some |pounds~10m on importing Palestinian goods over the next three years, but significantly more in the long term. But Palestinian exporters are finding out the hard way that European importers and consumers are chiefly interested in quality and the ability to fulfill orders on time. Origin of goods and problems regarding political stability and Israeli restrictions on the whole do not interest them, at least in the business context.

Palestinian businessmen are vehement in denying that they do want charity from Europe. "What we are after is markets for our produce. We want commercial and legal trade. We can be competitive," says Mohammed Shawwa, chairman of the Benevolent Society of the Gaza Strip. "The truth is that we were doing well in the past, but our trade simply died away as the Israelis took it over for themselves.

"We have come to London to show off our products, and have ready for sale worldwide thousands of tons of juicy citrus fruit and top-quality vegetables. What is clear is that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must industrialise, through cottage, light and medium-sized industries."
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Title Annotation:Palestinians set trade links with EC
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:851
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