Palestinians shun US prosperity pledges despite financial woes

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


Boxes of unsold biscuits are piled up in a West Bank warehouse, a sign of tough economic times faced by Palestinians who are determined not to be wooed by Washington's economic pledges.

"Money does not replace the dignity of our people and the justness of our cause," said Mazen Sinokrot, whose company produces foodstuffs and a range of other goods.

A former Palestinian finance minister, Sinokrot said he had been invited to a US-sponsored economic conference in Bahrain this week but declined.

The United States aims to showcase its vision of the potential economic benefits to the Palestinians if -- after decades of hostilities and failed peace initiatives -- they were to agree a deal with Israel.

But when the White House unveiled the financial details of the plan on Saturday, it was immediately rejected by the Palestinian government.

"The economic situation should not be discussed before the political one. And as long as there is no political (solution), we do not deal with any economic issues," said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, giving his reason for not attending the Manama meeting.

Nearly all Palestinian business leaders are set to also boycott the conference, despite the hard financial conditions at home.

At the Sinokrot company's factory near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, two of the three biscuit production lines have been switched off for the past month.

"(People) who were able to buy two packets a day are now buying one or none at all," said production head Majd Sinokrot.

The economy in the Palestinian territories is flagging, with only minor growth in the West Bank last year and gross domestic product in the Gaza Strip declining by eight percent.

The World Bank recently described an "unsustainable economic situation", with unemployment topping 30 percent across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In the strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade for more than a decade, the jobless rate last year stood at 52 percent.

- Palestinians reject deal -

The Manama conference is intended to "unlock the incredible potential of the Palestinian and regional economy", according to Washington's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.

But, writing for CNN, he admitted that "our economic plan cannot be successful without a political agreement."

The political elements of the peace plan are expected to be delayed until after an Israeli election in September.

But even before the publication of the economic aspects of the deal -- which aims to raise $50 billion over a decade -- the Palestinians voiced their opposition to any upcoming plan.

They argue Washington is biased in favour of Israel, citing recent decisions under US President Donald Trump such as cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid.

Palestinians say the economic stagnation is largely the result of decades of Israeli occupation and measures imposed by the Israeli government such as tight restrictions on freedom of movement.

A standoff between the two administrations in recent months has left the Palestinian Authority short of tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues collected by Israel on its behalf.

The budget shortfall led the Palestinian government to halve the salaries of its more than 100,000 staff.

Relations between the Ramallah-based PA and Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas have also worsened, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas taking measures which have hit the enclave's residents.

On top of disputes between the rival administrations, Palestinians continue to suffer the effects of corruption and poor governance, according to Palestinian economist Nasr Abdel Karim.

With Israel drawing tens of thousands of Palestinian workers, an Israeli official described such employment as a "win-win situation".

Many Palestinian business owners have strong economic ties with Israel, but are worried about a backlash if they attend the Bahrain conference.

No more than a handful of Palestinians are expected to attend, including businessman Ashraf Jaabari who is known at home in the West Bank city of Hebron for his controversial relations with Israeli settlers.

For economist Abdel Karim, the Bahrain conference is "an attempt to avoid politics and focus on the economic aspect, so it leads to prosperity and then to peace."

But for the majority of Palestinian business owners, he said, "there is a feeling that the cost of participation will be high."