Jericho is reputedly the world’s most ancient, continuously inhabited city, its fortified walls dating back 10,000 years. Today it is a haven of self-rule in central Palestine and a mecca for residents in the West Bank seeking a respite from their political and economic woes, as well as for some 700,000 tourists a year who visit the area’s famed biblical and Islamic sites.
But on a 10-minute drive out-of-town, the vibrant streets, palm trees and market stalls filled with the lush produce of the Jordan Valley give way to the desert. It’s hard to believe that in the space of a few months, 11.5 hectares of rocky soil and flat, dry terrain will give way to an industrial zone of processing plants and modern factories capable of exporting the region’s high quality agricultural products to nearby Jordan and onward to lucrative markets in the Arab Gulf states and the European Union.
It is just one of three such zones—along with others in Bethlehem and Jenin—planned by the Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zones Authority (PIEFZA) to help increase jobs and opportunities for small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as export earnings. If successful—and there are many “ifs” given Israel’s control of the surrounding region, the pioneering Jericho project, known as the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park (JAIP), could prove to be a boon to private and foreign investment, particularly from Palestinian and Arab entrepreneurs in the diaspora.
Reem Najjar, the Acting Director-General of PIEFZA, says the first companies should be ready to move in to JAIP by October, now that a developer, the Palestinian-owned holding company, PADICO, has been appointed and contract terms drawn up. A package of financial and tax incentives, as well as preferential tariffs, is also being finalised, she adds.
Private and foreign investors would be eligible to receive up to 35 per cent of the costs of starting a business in JAIP. Funds have also been made available by the World Bank affiliate, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), to guarantee up to 80 per cent of an investment against any losses from war or conflict. Companies in the Park would also have access to up-to-date business, internet and technical services and a staff of highly educated professionals, as well as abundant skilled labour.
JAIP Model 1
More than 20 applicants, including companies from nearby Jordan, are lining up to participate, drawn to the Park and the area around it by the new roads, bridges, water, wastewater, power and telecoms facilities and reclaimed land, as well as by schemes to help farmers in the Jordan Valley improve their agricultural production—including high-value organic crops—and marketing. Much of this, including JAIP, has been financed and implemented by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency (JICA).
Hideaki Yamamoto, Japan’s Deputy Representative to the Palestine National Authority, a diplomat with many years of experience in the region and a key originator of Japan’s Corridor of Peace and Prosperity concept, which was first launched in 2006, said that the construction of the Park and its related works had “taken a long time in the initial phase” but “now we are at a moment of truth. We must accelerate our efforts.”
“Only recently it seemed like an empty desert here,” adds JICA’s Palestine Representative, Eiji Kubo, surveying what has now become a busy building site, where the country’s first industrial solar energy facility is taking shape along with the factories, access roads, administrative quarters and other utilities. It will house some 15 to 25 companies, producing dairy products, plastics and packaging materials as well as fruit and vegetable products and soft drinks when complete next year. Further expansion is planned.
Map of Jericho
A few miles away, at the new King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge linking the West Bank with Jordan—which was also financed by JICA, Japan, together with the Netherlands, has introduced transport scanners to enable Palestinian importers and exporters to avoid having to transfer their cargoes to Israeli or Jordanian trucks on the vital crossing. As Kubo notes, the move is aimed at reducing Israeli concerns about security and at allowing containers and pallets to pass through customs directly, thereby preventing the damage and extensive delays so often experienced by Palestinian shippers. The Palestinian Authority is also seeking to re-introduce Palestinian customs officials at the crossing, as Israel agreed in the Oslo Accords, Najjar reported.
Further snags may be unavoidable, however, given current Israeli foot-dragging on the import of the photovoltaic panels needed for the solar energy plant and on approval of the mile-long access road needed to link the Park with the main highway—Route 90—and the Allenby Bridge. While the new processing plants in JAIP will help to add value and shelf life to the fruits and vegetables grown in the rich soil of the Jordan Valley, packing plants specializing in fresh produce—including tomatoes, citrus fruits, dates, melons, cucumbers, peppers and herbs—could face substantial losses, as well as higher costs, if they are forced to use only the smaller, circuitous road through Jericho city to the Bridge.
Which is why, as Yamamoto indicates, many of Palestine’s other international donors, as well as Japan, are concerned to “accelerate their efforts” to convince Israel of the benefits entailed in speeding up economic development in the West Bank. Most Palestinians are skeptical that progress can be achieved in the current circumstances, but JICA’s success–and patience–so far is a cause for hope.
© Pamela Ann Smith
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