Palestinians Want Aid for Mideast Peace Economic Development Is `Support System' for Process

Article excerpt

FOR Palestinian representatives at the Mideast peace talks, addressing economic issues has become essential to resolving territorial disputes.

While they are anxious to achieve "concrete results," including self-rule in the Israeli-occupied territories, they are also eager for economic rewards based on their participation in the peace process and resulting accords.

But while the West is responding with aid, Palestinians are critical of the way it is being delivered and Gulf states are reluctant to ante up.

"I call economic development the support system for the peace process," says Saeb Erakat, vice-chairman of the Palestinian delegation and a politics professor at An-Najah University in Nablus, on the West Bank. "How can you negotiate, after all, when the economic atmosphere in the occupied territories is so poor?"

Washington, the host for the talks, has worked hard to keep the process on track. Last week, the United States State Department announced plans to transfer $14 million directly to the West Bank and Gaza to help create job opportunities for Palestinians. Encouraged by the US, the European Community pledged another $6 million. And in late April, the US asked Saudi Arabia - the Palestinians' greatest benefactor in the past - to resume financial aid to the Palestinians to help ensure their return to the negotiations table.

In order to maintain momentum, the US will follow through quickly on its commitment, says Peter Gubser, president of American Near East Refugee Aid, a nongovernmental organization that administers economic and social development projects in the West Bank, Gaza, and other areas in the Middle East. "The Americans want to spend it as quickly and as soberly as possible, and they are contacting groups that work in the area," he says.

BUT Mr. Erakat says the assistance is misplaced. The donors, he says, "want to create more cheap labor, but we have no money to cover the operating costs of our institutions - our universities, hospitals, churches, and youth organizations."

A United Nations report issued Monday points to dire conditions among Palestinians living in the territories. According to the UN Development Program (UNDP), their income has fallen 36 percent over the past five years, and unemployment has jumped to 40 percent. It also cited "a gross negligence of infrastructure."

The UNDP attributes the decline to economic disruptions caused by the Palestinian-organized uprising (intifadah) against Israel, the loss of roughly $450 million in remittances from Palestinian workers who were expelled from other Gulf states during the Gulf war, and some $750 million in aid cuts by Arab donors who were were angered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization's (PLO) strong endorsement of Iraq in the Gulf war. …