Blair announces major projects to help boost Palestinian economy

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has unveiled four economic projects which he said could create thousands of Palestinian jobs in his first specific policy announcement as the international community's Middle East envoy.

He said at a joint news conference with the Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the emergency Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that the projects had been "greenlight-ed" by both sides and could be the start of a wider move to stimulate the stricken Palestinian economy if a peace process is sustained.

The projects include a sewage treatment project in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza, to replace a plant that was destroyed when an embankment collapsed in March, killing five Palestinians. Mr Blair said vital components had already been imported into Gaza, which is facing a complete commercial shut-down because of the closure of the Karni cargo crossing.

Other projects include an agro-industrial park in the Jordan valley around Jericho backed by Japan and a new industrial zone close to the Tarqumia crossing between the southern West Bank and Israel which is sponsored by Turkey. Mr Blair said the passage of goods from the agro-industrial park to the Allenby Bridge into Jordan had already been arranged.

The fourth project is a new effort to increase tourism in Bethlehem, by improving access through the checkpoints.

Municipal leaders have repeatedly complained that tourism has been reduced by difficulties of access, compounded by the separation barrier that has progressively encircled the city.

While warmly welcoming the projects, Mr Fayyad repeated several times at the press conference that the revival of the Palestinian private sector required a major reduction of checkpoints and roadblocks to free up movement access of goods and people.

Stressing his responsibility for Israeli security, Mr Barak said a further 24 roadblocks and one checkpoint would be removed along with a similar number – out of more than 300 – that he said had been removed in recent weeks.

According to Mr Blair's office, a series of planned projects, including those for municipal infrastructure, new housing initiatives in the West Bank and measures to improve Palestinian education were in "different stages of implementation".