|Al-Masri (centre, in brown suit) says the occupation is the antithesis to economic progress [EPA]|
To describe Munib al-Masri as a successful businessman would be an understatement.
The Palestinian billionaire lives in a house the size of a palace (that he built from scratch). But if you ever meet him never call it a palace to his face.
“Its name, my dear, is Beit Falasteen, the House of Palestine,” he says.
Al-Masri can afford to locate his business anywhere in the world, but chooses to invest his fortune in the Occupied West Bank and lead a life under Israeli occupation.
He says this is his land and he is not about to go anywhere.
As a successful entrepreneur, al-Masri has over the years developed the acumen to conduct business in the Occupied West Bank.
And he is quite outspoken about the “economic peace” plan Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has been touting.
|Al-Masri has invested his fortune in the West Bank, the site of his House of Palestine [EPA]|
In recent months, as the Arab-Israeli peace process appeared to have ground to a halt, Netanyahu has been trying to convince the Palestinians that upgrading their economy should take precedence over any talk of a Palestinian homeland.
Many Palestinians see this as a diversionary tactic.
They say that Netanyahu is trying to loosen Israeli restrictions on trade in the hopes that the Palestinians and the international community will stop talking about a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
They also say the entire “economic peace” plan is flawed because it focuses on the West Bank and entirely excludes the Gaza Strip.
Al-Masri says it is the very nature of Israeli occupation which is the fundamental antithesis of economic progress.
“It took me five hours to get to Nablus today from Jordan,” he said.
“It should take an hour. So how can I ask investors from London and Switzerland to come here and invest? Are they going to spend five hours at the [Allenby (King Hussein)] Bridge?”
The bridge between the West Bank and Jordan is controlled by Israeli authorities and the Jordanian government.
When it is open for traffic, the trip is often mired in delays and frequent security checks. Families who have crossed through the bridge have often complained of long bus queues and endless passport checks.
However, it is not just the movement of people but also the transportation of goods that is delayed.
“Sometimes our produce coming in from Jordan will languish for hours in the sun before being allowed in. By the time it makes it to the West Bank the produce has spoilt,” al-Masri says.
In a fast-paced global business environment, Israel’s occupation has significantly slowed down Palestinian trade making competition in international markets nearly impossible.
However, recent measures by the Israeli authorities may signal a change in Palestinian business fortunes.
Last year, there were six checkpoints surrounding Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank considered by many traders to be Palestine’s economic capital.
After the second intifada in 2000, Nablus was put under strict Israeli siege. It was lawless and subjected to routine Israeli incursions and curfews imposed by the occupying forces.
But things have started to change.
Palestinian Authority forces have taken control of the city’s security and rigid screening at most of the Israeli checkpoints has been eased.
The checkpoints still stand but the Israeli soldiers do not check every single car and waiting times to cross through have dropped.
The city has been transformed in a matter of months – a spa and cinema are just two examples of the new face lift.
There is also a buzz and positive vibe in the city.
Majid Abu Salha owns what is considered to be the most famous sweet shop in the city.
“Nablus relies on surrounding villages, Tulkarem, Jenin, Ramallah to trade with, but that’s not been possible for the last nine years and during the Intifada,” Majid said.
Now, however, he says business is booming again, with people from the rest of the West Bank coming to Nablus to buy the dessert the city has become famous for – kanafeh, a vermicelli-like sweet pastry that is a delicacy in much of the Middle East.
For the first time in years, Palestinian-Israelis are also visiting Nablus.
Occupation stifles economy
“I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but [the biggest obstacle to business] is the occupation”
But Israel’s idea of economic peace is not without its severe limitations.
More than 600 roadblocks – checkpoints included – continue to make getting around the West Bank frustrating at best, impossible at worst.
The separation wall not only cuts through Palestinian villages and towns, but also cuts Jerusalem off from the rest of the West Bank.
Exports and industry are still suffering the effects of arbitrary rules imposed by Israeli authorities at border crossings.
Netanyahu has been flaunting his new plan to the international community – pointing to the IMF’s recent, and unusually upbeat, prediction that the Palestinian economy in the West Bank could grow by seven per cent by the end of the year.
But this is on the condition Israel effectively eases restrictions on movement and trade.
So far, Tel Aviv has made only tacit moves in reaction to US criticism that recent Israeli policies have made the two-state solution more difficult to reach.
A recent article in Haaretz, an Israeli daily, said that most of the checkpoints recently removed at the request of Barack Obama, the US president, had already been scheduled for removal by Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, in response to pressure from George Bush, the then-US president.
“I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but it is the occupation,” al-Masri said when asked about the greatest obstacles to Palestinian economic growth.
His sentiments have been voiced by experts in the West Bank. They agree that there cannot be economic progress without a political solution to the 61-year Arab-Israeli conflict.