Gaza: Historic Gateway’s Huge Potential as a Mediterranean Trading Hub

To most people around the world, the word ‘Gaza’ conjures up images of rockets and bombs, wars, poverty and invasion, never mind the appalling conditions in which many of its residents live as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade and, most recently, the massive Israeli attack on the enclave — its third in the past six years. But, while one international commentator wrote recently, “It’s not too fanciful to see it in the future as the ‘Dubai’ of the Eastern Mediterranean,” Gaza has much more to offer given its 3,000 years of culture and its history as a prosperous trading hub connecting Africa and Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Gaza, by David Roberts. Photo Reproduction, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Gaza, by David Roberts. Photo Reproduction, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

(Click on the photo to enlarge.)

In the 19th Century, Gaza’s renowned soap factories, like those in Nablus, produced luxury goods that were exported around the world. It’s premium cotton crop, fruits, vegetables and spices were in great demand. Gaza’s merchants catered to a vast array of travelers: European visitors to the Holy Land, caravans from Egypt and North Africa, pilgrims from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Its bazaars were regarded as even better than those in Jerusalem.

Founded in the 14th Century, Khan Younis in southern Gaza served as a centre of the caravan trade between Asia and  Africa.  Photo:  Marka, Wikipedia.org

Founded in the 14th Century, Khan Younis in southern Gaza served as a centre of the caravan trade between Asia and Africa. Photo: Marka, Wikipedia.org

Before the latest invasion, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund estimated that Gaza’s GDP would rise by 7 per cent in 2013 and 6.5 per cent this year, figures that any European country would envy. But the destruction by Egypt, as well as Israel, of the underground tunnels, which allowed much needed supplies to be brought in despite the blockade, has ended any hopes that Gaza can survive on its own, never mind grow.

Earlier this year, it was expected that increases in international aid, especially from the European Union and the UN following Israel’s onslaught in November, 2012, would counter some of the setbacks. The rise in development funds, from both government and private sources in the Gulf states – including Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – was also contributing to a new era of hope and confidence in Gaza. Qatar’s building projects, covering everything from schools, roads and hospitals to new housing and infrastructure projects alone were expected to create some 10,000 jobs by next year.

The University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza.  Many more schools and higher education facilities are needed.  Photo:  Ahmed Fuad.

The University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza. Many more schools and higher education facilities are needed. Photo: Ahmed Fuad.

Surprisingly, until the latest assault, the growing international awareness and support for Gaza’s people had also led to a boom in tourism in the enclaves’ new hotels, restaurants and shopping malls. International solidarity activists, NGO staff and aid officials were helping to boost capacity and business to levels not seen since the Israeli bombardment of late 2008.

Gaza's first five-star luxury hotel, the Al-Mashtal.  Photo:  ArcMed

Gaza’s first five-star luxury hotel, the Al-Mashtal. Photo: ArcMed

The desire of Gaza’s newly rich elite to live in up-to-date, spacious accommodation, combined with the eagerness of its private investors to seek out alternatives to the tunnel trade, helped to fuel a boom in real estate, retail and leisure services, as well as increased demand for international luxury brands.

Meanwhile, a host of recent studies, from the World Bank, Israeli academics and the Gaza-based PalThink research centre have pointed out that concrete measures will also be needed to be introduced by Hamas if Gaza’s huge economic potential is to be realized, even if the Israeli siege is lifted, or substantially eased.

In particular, they cite the need for more institutional support for the private sector, an overhaul of the tax regime, and measures to boost agricultural and industrial productivity, as well as export capacity.

Gaza could produce a huge array of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dates, olive oils and spices for export, if the seige were lifted.  Photo:  The Gaza Kitchen, Just World Books, 2013

Gaza could produce a huge array of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dates, olive oils and spices for export, if the seige were lifted. Photo: The Gaza Kitchen, Just World Books, 2013

Gaza's fishermen used to supply Egypt, Israel and neighbouring Arab states, but Israeli restrictions mean the fishermen cannot even supply domestic demand. Photo:  The Gaza Kitchen, Just World Books, 2013

Gaza’s fishermen used to supply Egypt, Israel and neighbouring Arab states, but Israeli restrictions mean the fishermen cannot even supply domestic demand. Photo: The Gaza Kitchen, Just World Books, 2013

Special attention, they add, should be given to those sectors, such as manufacturing, construction and tourism, which would provide the most jobs. Vocational training projects, as well as a re-vamp of the entire educational system, plus incentives for the ICT and telecoms sector, they say, are urgently needed to help Gaza realize its opportunities in a globalized marketplace.

While the Bank of Palestine and other financial institutions have continued to provide, often under the most difficult circumstances, access to cash and funds in Gaza, Hamas will also need to ensure that any lifting of the Israeli siege, both for business people and cargoes, is accompanied by closer co-ordination of trade and regulations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Gaza’s dependence on the use of the Israeli shekel (NIS) as its main currency, together with its heavy reliance on money-lenders rather than on banks which can gather deposits and direct them to profitable development projects, could hold up progress in the future as more aid and investment pours in, and as reconstruction begins, once again, in earnest, the reports note.

If Gaza City is to thrive again, Hamas will need to introduce economic and financial reforms, as well as seeking to end the Israeli blockade.  Photo: Al Jazeera English

If Gaza City is to thrive again, Hamas will need to introduce economic and financial reforms, as well as seeking to end the Israeli blockade. Photo: Al Jazeera English

Arab and Islamic tourism to Gaza, as well as to Jerusalem and the West Bank, could also be greatly increased by agreements with Egypt on developing the Sinai Peninsula and the border areas with Gaza, Oman Shaban, the founder and director of the Gaza-based think tank, PalThink, argues. “Tourism in the Sinai Peninsula [which would also benefit Egypt directly] represents a golden opportunity for tens of thousands of Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem due to visitor appeal and modest costs,” he maintains.

Dating back to the 13th Century, the Pasha's Palace has been occupied by various rulers of Gaza, from the Mamlukes and Ottomans to Napolean and the British.  The UN is now helping to restore it as a major tourist site.  Photo: UNDP

Dating back to the 13th Century, the Pasha’s Palace has been occupied by various rulers of Gaza, from the Mamlukes and Ottomans to Napolean and the British. The UN is now helping to restore it as a major tourist site. Photo: UNDP

Talks between the PA and Israel that were underway to begin exploiting the rich reserves of natural gas, and possibly oil as well, lying just off Gaza’s shores in the Mediterranean, have also been put on hold. Valued at some $7 billion, they could help to end Gaza’s critical shortage of fuel and electricity as well as providing substantial revenues to build new schools, hospitals, roads, ports and even an airport, as well as vitally needed new water and wastewater facilities. Gas exports either through Egypt or Turkey, could boost the PA’s coffers for years to come, and help to reduce both Gaza and the West Bank’s huge dependence on international aid, speeding up the day when Palestine can become self-sufficient.

Gas reserves valued at $7 billion lying off the coast of Gaza could greatly reduce Palestine's dependence on foreign aid.  Photo:  Michel Chossudovsky

Gas reserves valued at $7 billion lying off the coast of Gaza could greatly reduce Palestine’s dependence on foreign aid. Photo: Michel Chossudovsky

Hamas’s newfound unity with the PA in Ramallah and the solidarity for Gaza shown by Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as by people around the world, bodes well for bringing Gaza into a regional network that could benefit Israel as well as Palestine. But for that to happen, more pragmatic heads will need to surface in Tel Aviv and Cairo, as well as in Gaza City.

© Pamela Ann Smith

This is a publication of investpalestine.wordpress.com and is protected by international copyright laws. This article is for the reader’s personal use only, but may be re-distributed electronically with a credit to investpalestine.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the July, 2013 issue of The Middle East magazine.

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The Palestinian Economy: What Next?

Contrary to what many in the US or Europe might expect, Palestine’s economic prospects in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem may be better off after the end of the nine-month-long ‘peace’ talks involving US Secretary of State John Kerry and Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy for the EU, the US, the UN and Russia. For starters, the rapprochement between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza could open the way to the long delayed exploration of the offshore Gaza oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean. Plus the agreement, announced last December, to build a new power plant in Jenin, in the West Bank, also powered by Mediterranean gas, will, at last, go ahead.

The West Bank will now get its own power plant, built by the Palestinian Power Generation Company (PPGC). reducing Palestine's dependence on Israeli electricity supplies.   Photo:  Palden Jenkins.  paldywan.blogspot.co.uk.

The West Bank will now get its own power plant, built by the Palestinian Power Generation Company (PPGC), reducing Palestine’s dependence on Israeli electricity supplies. Photo: Palden Jenkins. paldywan.blogspot.co.uk.

Al Mashtal, the 5-star luxury hotel on Gaza's Mediterranean seafront is expected to get a huge boost this summer from visitors from the Gulf states and Egypt, as well as Europe.  Christopher Furlong - AFP/Getty Images)

Al Mashtal, the 5-star luxury hotel on Gaza’s Mediterranean seafront is expected to get a huge boost this summer from visitors from the Gulf states and Egypt, as well as Europe. Christopher Furlong – AFP/Getty Images)

The publication in the past few weeks of Tony Blair and the Quartet’s Initiative for the Palestinian Economy (IPE), Beyond Aid, — a forward looking development plan for the private sector sponsored by Palestinian corporates, including PalTel, PADICO and the Bank of Palestine, plus the announcement at the World Economic Forum last year of a joint Palestinian-Israeli initiative, Breaking the Impasse, to link the most innovative private sector businesses on both sides of the divide, has already set the stage, and stretched the possibilities, for much more foreign and private sector direct investment, despite the Israeli recalcitrance. So, while share prices on the Palestinian Stock Exhange have suffered significant declines in April, foreign institutional investors have been buoyed by announcements of impressive dividends from the Exchange’s leading companies. The Bank of Palestine, for example, on 25 April agreed to distribute 8.33 per cent cash dividends and 6.66 per cent stock dividends for the year 2014. Paid up capital increased by $160 million. PalTel, another leading company on the Exchange, reported net income up by 12 per cent in the first quarter, despite the lack of progress in the ‘peace’ talks.

The Consolidated Contractors Company, founded in Beirut in 1952,  is one of the Palestinian Diaspora's most successful companies, ranking among the top 20 international contractors in the world.  It is now investing heavily in the West Bank and in Gaza.

The Consolidated Contractors Company, founded in Beirut in 1952, is one of the Palestinian Diaspora’s most successful companies, ranking among the top 20 international contractors in the world. It is now investing heavily in the West Bank and in Gaza.

We’ll be reporting on all this in May, plus the dilemmas now facing key donors to the Palestinian Authority, including the EU, the US, Japan and the Arab countries. And, of course, we’ll be tracking the budget crunch that the PA can expect as a result of Netanyahu’s squeeze on its custom revenues. As always, watch this space. And, thanks for reading, Pam © Pamela Ann Smith This is a publication of investpalestine.wordpress.com and is protected by international copyright laws. This article is for the reader’s personal use only, but may be re-distributed electronically with a credit to investpalestine.com.

Solar Energy & Water: Japan Shows the Way

The construction of new power and water plants, never mind wastewater schemes, may not be glamorous, but it is vital to the development of any country, especially one like Palestine whose people are struggling with living under occupation as well as with a lack of finance. When such projects are linked to sustainability and the use of low-maintenance, renewable energy sources, they can do even more to promote what the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) –Japan’s foreign aid organisation– calls “human security.” And that’s something that could benefit Palestinians living in Jordan and the neighbouring countries, as well in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
A Japanese engineer supervising the installation of solar panels at the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park.

At first glance, the construction site for a new solar electricity generation system just outside Jericho in the West Bank looks like a low-lying maze of horizontal steel beams stretching across an otherwise empty tract of sand to the administrative buildings of a new industrial zone – JAIP – that JICA is building nearby. (See Jericho Agro-Industrial Park, below.) But, if all goes well, by next year it should be providing much-needed power for Jericho city, as well as for the new factories in the Park. Continue reading

Jericho Agro-Industrial Park: Bringing State-of-the-Art Industry to the World’s Oldest City

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. Continue reading