"The financial management of the Palestinian Authority is indeed in very good hands," World Bank official Christiaan Poortman said, praising new Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayad after the day-long conference hosted by current EU president Italy. 

"The Palestinian Authority has made giant strides in terms of accountability and transparency," added Jakken Biorn Lian, a
spokesman for Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen who chaired the meeting.

The two officials were at pains to point out that the reform-minded finance minister had introduced safeguards to stop international donor money leaking to extremist groups and being lost to corruption, a previous criticism of international watchdogs.

International commitment

The conference, drawing representatives from some 14 countries and international organisations, highlighted an international commitment to support and nurture the stricken Palestinian economy but delivered no specific financial pledges.

"The Palestinian Authority has made giant strides in terms of accountability and transparency"

Jakken Biorn Lian,
Norwegian government spokesperson

Officials pointed out that donors had not been asked to pledge, simply to agree a framework by which donor funds could be distributed. To that end, Poortman told a news conference that World Bank President James Wolfensohn had proposed setting up a multi-donor trust fund to oversee international funding for the shattered territories.  

"There will be requirements, conditionality, built into this trust fund and I'm sure that the PA will work with all of us and we'll be very satisfied with the outcome" said Lian.
 
Fayad used the conference to appeal for $1.2 billion in aid to shore up the would-be state's 2004 budget. Poortman warned that overall social and economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza have deteriorated badly and the Palestinians "will need $650 million in external budget support" alone for 2004. 
  
Development projects

A World Bank spokeswoman Elena Peresso told reporters that  Palestinians also needed "some $400 million in humanitarian aid and development projects," adding that the figure of $1.2 billion was "approximate". Poortman told the news conference the funding was a "critical issue". 

"We will try collectively to find whatever ways we can to come up with a significant proportion of these needs, if not all of them, and if this is not done, this will really put the Palestinian Authority in a very difficult financial bind," Poortman said.

Israel was also praised for plans unveiled by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to unblock economic cooperation on the ground.

"It will be discussed on the ground among our representatives and will be constitutied at the level of high officials," said Lian, but he declined to provide a date when such cooperation would be operable.

"The kinds of problem we are speaking of are related to closures, roadblocks, checkpoints. "Some of which are not only a nuisance but pose such a high cost factor to donors and the Palestinians that they are really hampering economic development and humanitarian assistance."
  
Also attending the talks was Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, and representatives of the quartet sponsoring the so-called "roadmap" peace plan: the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.