Panellists Cite Economic Costs of Occupation, Spotlight Investment Opportunities, as International Conference on Jerusalem Question Continues
BAKU, Azerbaijan, 21 July — Participants in the International Conference on the Question of Jerusalem continued to explore the specific impacts of the Israeli occupation on the city’s economy, development and social life — as well as opportunities for support from both donors and investors — as the meeting entered its second and final day.
During a plenary discussion on ways to support East Jerusalem’s tourism and infrastructure sectors, Rateb Rabie, Founder and President of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, said 80 per cent of the city’s Palestinian population lived below the poverty line, compared to a much smaller proportion of the city’s Jewish population. Israeli tour maps ignored both Christian and Muslim holy sites and there had been a steady decline in East Jerusalem tourism. He attributed East Jerusalem’s lack of hotels largely to the challenges of obtaining building permits, as well as the related souvenir shop closures and a drop in other tourism services. In that context, he called for stronger efforts to preserve Palestinian culture and identity, boost their competitive capacity and promote East Jerusalem tourism internationally.
Kamel Husseini, Chief International and Investors Relations Officer with the Bank of Palestine, echoed the concerns sounded about East Jerusalem’s tourism and services sectors, which represented 40 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively, of the economy. Whereas the situation there was “not rosy”, however, numerous investment opportunities were available, including in such areas as renovating existing family-run hotels, building new hotels, and converting existing landmark buildings such as hospitals and schools into four- and five-star hotels. Calling on the international community to mobilize around those opportunities — as well as the financing of new mortgage schemes, the provision of loans to small and medium-sized enterprises, infrastructure rehabilitation and other opportunities — he urged the media not to paint a hopeless picture among potential investors.
Motasem Taem, Head of the Jerusalem Unit in the Office of the President of the State of Palestine, agreed that investment opportunities existed, saying they enjoyed with unflagging support among East Jerusalem’s donors despite many challenges, and called, for the prompt convening of an investment conference to mobilize resources. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem Unit had identified a number of shortcomings in the support currently provided, he said, adding that future programmes must include specific indicators, transparent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, as well as enhanced coordination structures, he said.
Isra Muzaffar, Head of the Central West Bank Field Office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, presented the United Nations Engagement Strategy in East Jerusalem, saying it sought to mobilize support for the city’s Palestinian population by aligning the Organization’s various development, humanitarian and other efforts on the ground. Outlining critical challenges impacting the population, she pointed to restrictions on free movement, high rates of detention and issues related to property rights, such as the transfer of Palestinian properties to Israeli “custodians” under the Absentee Property Law. The confiscation and demolition of Palestinian property was a serious threat, she emphasized, noting that some 25,000 units — housing 100,000 people or one third of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population — were currently at risk.
In the ensuing interactive discussion, speakers from a range of organizations shared their thoughts on East Jerusalem’s economy, with many focusing on how to boost tourism. One speaker expressed concern that some religious leaders around the world urged their followers not to visit the city’s holy sites while it remained under Israeli occupation, or had even prohibited them from doing so. Others raised concerns about disunity among various Palestinian factions, to which the panellists responded by emphasizing the importance of solidarity.
The Conference will reconvene at 2 p.m. for its final plenary session and the conclusion of its other outstanding work.
The Conference held its second plenary session under the theme, “a new approach for East Jerusalem”, with a focus on “tangible support to the Palestinian economy: tourism, infrastructure”. Chaired by Aghshin Mehdiyev, Permanent Observer of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to the United Nations, it featured four panellists: Rateb Rabie, Founder and President, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Washington, D.C.; Motasem Taem, Head, Jerusalem Unit, Office of the President of the State of Palestine, Ramallah; Kamel Husseini, Chief International and Investors Relations Officer, Bank of Palestine in Ramallah; and Isra Muzaffar, Head, Central West Bank Field Office, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Mr. RABIE said Israeli policy in Jerusalem fell under three phases: de‑development, integration and “gentrification”, each of which negatively impacted the city’s Palestinians. The wall constructed between the West Bank and Jerusalem — marginalizing the Palestinian urban presence — was one example of the first phase. The second phase, integration, aimed to draw all facets of life into the Israeli system, impacting Palestinian educational curricula, business licences, labour laws and promotion of the city. The separation wall, in particular, divided the Palestinian territory into two parts, thereby cutting off and isolating East Jerusalem from the West Bank, degrading the quality of life and creating a political vacuum. More than 80 per cent of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem lived below the poverty line, compared to just a fraction of that proportion among the city’s Jewish population.
Israeli tour maps of Jerusalem had been drawn to ignore both Christian and Muslim holy sites, he continued, describing the steady decline in tourism in the city’s eastern part. Noting that the Christian pilgrimage in Jerusalem was seasonal in nature, and that the Muslim market was both limited and occasional, he said only 20 per cent of pilgrims to the city stayed in East Jerusalem despite the fact that most of the holy sites were located there. There was also a lack of hotels in East Jerusalem — fewer than 1,500 in total — due largely to challenges in obtaining building permits. Tourism services were also down, souvenir shops were closing, bus traffic was dropping and East Jerusalem lacked a tourism board to address those challenges. In that regard, he called for stronger efforts to preserve Palestinian culture, identity and existence, and to build the capacity of their businesses and organizations; boost East Jerusalem’s competitive capacity by introducing new products to challenge tourism’s seasonality; and promote tourism by positioning East Jerusalem on regional and international maps.
Mr. TAEM, describing a range of measures imposed by the Israeli authorities in order to “Judaize” the city of Jerusalem, said they extended to its recent actions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Muslim and Christian holy sites. Israel’s policies included efforts to create a Jewish majority by establishing “Jewish only” settlements, as well as the imposition of spatial segregation and reducing the Palestinian population’s visibility.
He went on to outline a number of related projects, including settlement tunnels and excavations, the creation of Talmudic Gardens or “National Parks”, a dangerous cable car project and the building of an illegal annexation wall. Against that backdrop, he said, the Jerusalem Unit was working to help Palestinians in the city remain steadfast and maintain their presence, while supporting their development and prosperity. Agreeing that a number of investment opportunities existed in the city, he called for the prompt convening of an investment conference to mobilize resources. Drawing attention to shortcomings identified by his Unit in the support currently provided to East Jerusalem, he said, in that regard, that future programmes should include specific indicators, transparent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and enhanced coordination structures. He also proposed that the Palestinian people be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. HUSSEINI also described economic and development efforts in East Jerusalem, involving intergovernmental agencies, donors, “public-private partnerships” and now also Palestinian banks, saying they provided new investment opportunities. Despite a number of improvements and significant potential, tourism and services remained the core economic sectors in East Jerusalem, representing 40 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. Investment opportunities in those areas included renovating existing, family-run hotels, building new hotels and converting existing landmark buildings, such as hospitals and schools, into four-star hotels or above. For example, investors could come together to reconvert the Orient House — formerly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters and originally built as a guesthouse — into a hotel, he said, pointing out that, of the $65 million required for investment, all but $10 million had been raised.
Outlining several other private sector investment opportunities, he cited new mortgage financing schemes; loan guarantees, including for small and medium-sized enterprises; a new “urban renewal master plan”; labour rehabilitation and training; infrastructure rehabilitation; education and technical skills development; and training in innovation and entrepreneurship to support East Jerusalem’s knowledge economy. “We have a responsibility as non-partisans — Arabs, Muslims and others,” he emphasized, calling on the international community to mobilize around such investment opportunities. East Jerusalem still offered many opportunities for investment and while the picture there was “not rosy”, the Arab media should avoid painting a hopeless picture of the city among potential investors. In that vein, he described an urban renewal project jointly undertaken by the Islamic Development Bank, European Union, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other partners, to revitalize two commercial streets in East Jerusalem, which could serve as a model for future endeavours. Arab donors might be reluctant to give money to the West Bank or Gaza so as to avoid being seen as favouring a particular Palestinian party, but everybody could come together in support of East Jerusalem, he concluded.
Ms. MUZAFFAR presented the United Nations Engagement Strategy in East Jerusalem, saying it sought to mobilize support for the city’s Palestinian population by aligning the Organization’s various development, humanitarian and other efforts on the ground. Among other things, the United Nations country team had carried out a series of mapping exercises, identifying gaps and areas that could be improved. Noting that the particular realities of East Jerusalem under Israeli occupation had begun just 50 years ago, she outlined challenges that had worsened over those decades. Those included restrictions on free movement, high rates of detention, and issues relating to property rights, such as the transfer of Palestinian property to Israeli “custodians” under the Absentee Property Law.
The confiscation of private Palestinian properties and the demolition of homes was another major challenge, she said, noting that a full 35 per cent of East Jerusalem had been expropriated to settlers. In 2017 alone, 99 Palestinian structures had been demolished to date, affecting more than 200 people. While that pace had not attracted international media attention, it was a steady stream that continued to grow, she said. Some 25,000 units — housing 100,000 people, or one third of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population — were currently at risk of demolition; meanwhile, the construction of checkpoints and finally a barrier wall sought to isolate the city’s Palestinian population and further transform geopolitics on the ground. The wall had placed thousands of West Bank residents in East Jerusalem, essentially making them prisoners in their own homes, she emphasized.
Outlining key challenges impacting East Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, she cited underfunded hospitals, substance abuse, lack of education, high detention rates among children, the need for economic revitalization and the closure of Palestinian institutions. Against that backdrop, the United Nations strategy in East Jerusalem laid out a set of “soft interventions” intended to restore East Jerusalem as the centre of commercial, religious and cultural life for the Palestinian population. The interventions were also intended to help reconnect the city with the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, while allowing the population to realize their rights and access essential services. Among the areas identified as requiring particular attention, were the effects of the barrier wall, issues of residency and political representation, the absentee and property rights law, as well as the impact of settler activities.
With the floor open for comments and questions, opinions were aired about the education and property rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, as well as their access to basic services. Speakers also raised points relating the city’s tourism industry.
The representative of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum echoed the concerns raised by the panellists about education in East Jerusalem. Underlining that Jerusalem belonged to all three major monotheistic religions, he said all their populations in the city deserved access to strong, well-funded education systems.
The representative of the Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre for Islamic Countriescalled on all stakeholders — and indeed all human beings — to fulfil their responsibility to help resolve the challenges facing Jerusalem. Challenges preventing the development of robust tourism in the city of Jerusalem included restrictions imposed by some religious leaders on visiting while it remained under occupation, he said, calling on them to rethink such rules and instead actively support Palestinian-run businesses.
Mr. TAEM, responding to one speaker’s proposal of a “three-State solution” involving Israel and two Palestinian States representing factions currently seeming unable to unite, stressed that “the Palestinian people are one people”. The “temporary black cloud” of disunity would ultimately lift, he said, noting that all Palestinians agreed on the need to have their land and freedom restored.
Mr. HUSSEINI said elections would decide the way forward for Palestinians, declaring: “There is one country, one State and one capital.”
For information media. Not an official record.