Can annexation be good for the Palestinian private sector?

Bashar Masri, founder of Rawabi City and Chairman of the board of Massar International. Photo Courtesy of Media Centra
Bashar Masri, founder of Rawabi and Chairman of the board of Massar International

The Palestinian Authority is being praised for how efficiently it has handled the COVID -19 pandemic resulting in popularity and renewed trust in the government. Palestine was one of the first nations to declare an emergency on March 6th, 2020 resulting in a low number of confirmed cases of the virus. However, the Palestinian economy has suffered, and founder of Rawabi and Chairman of the board at Massar International Bashar Masri says the success of Palestine is largely due to the private sector.

According to Masri, the PA does not have a stimulus package, and Masri says they are now asking the private sector to put up even more money.

“When the emergency was declared we in the private sector jumped in to assist the government effort because we know they were not ready for this,” Masri says.

As the founder of Rawabi a high-tech city and the first planned city built by Palestinians for Palestinians in the West Bank, Masri is against the recently proposed annexation of the West Bank. But the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce  and Industry say the proposed Trump plan could boost the Palestinian private sector.

The Judea Chamber of Commerce and Industry was founded in 2017 with a vision to develop the economy of the region that includes free trade, open market and leveraging Israeli’s tech innovation eco-system says President Avi Zimmerman. He says the Trump plan has two facets, a geo-political facet that gives Israel the opportunity to apply sovereignty and the Palestinian opportunity to create an official state. He said the second facet to the Trump plan is economic, which is his focus.

Last June, the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry took its Palestinian delegation to Bahrain when the economic portion of the Trump plan was unveiled. He says the economic portion could result in growth for the private sector and his projections are based off an assumption that Israel may move forward without the PA.

“And then of course there’s the United States and that gets back to the economic part of the plan that was introduced in Bahrain to the tune of $50 billion of  investment, not only to the Palestinian Authority,  but to the  countries nearby in the region,” Zimmerman says. “The potential for growth with a $50 billion investment over time in different sectors like government, civic society, and direct economic investment are all opportunities.”

Zimmerman says there is a lot of potential even with the initial stages of implementation of the plan, but there are a lot of question marks because they don’t know the details or how things will be implemented.

The Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry is promoting Area C technology zones that are shared zones that also bring technology to the forefront. There are big projects like the Silicon Wadi Project in Jerusalem that Zimmerman says is an example of what shared technology zones could look like.

Masri says the collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian high-tech companies in Rawabi is going “simply perfect.” The relationships allowed businesses to quickly respond to teh demands of  the COVID-19 pandemic. He says from day one they enacted measures to ensure people can work from home.

“We gave them laptops and we made sure their homes were connected to high speed internet we installed with a Microsoft team to train people how to use it,” Masri says.

Masri says business with international clients has gone smoothly and nothing has slowed down. In fact, he says people are still working from home.

“The pandemic may change how things work and more people may work from home. Why waste office space when you can work from home and be normal?”

But he also says keep in mind Palestine is used to crisis.

“We have had overnight the Israeli army come in and lock everything up for two months,” he says.

In this particular case, Masri says they were very ready, but make no mistake the Palestinian economy has been hit hard.

“We are a nation in the making we don’t have a lot of cushion. It hit everyone unexpected thus the consequences are very severe,” Masri says.  “The pandemic crisis going on in the world is going to take a long time. I think the measures to handle the economic slowdown, in my opinion, are weak.”

The current plan is based on more borrowing and Masri says in the past the Palestinian government borrowed against money Israel has withheld.  He says the Palestinian income from taxes has dropped dramatically and there is nothing to borrow against.

“The PA needs to think out of the box away from an increase in taxes… we don’t have a stimulus package,” he says.

Masri says 92% of the Palestinian economy relies on small businesses and workers who work in Israel and many of those business have come to a halt. Most of the businesses are mom and pop owned that he says will, unfortunately, go bankrupt. On May 3, Palestinians went back to work and he’s hoping at least two thirds will re-enter the workforce.

“The service taxi driver will take a long time to recover many of them will go out of business for sure.”

On the other hand, he says the Palestinian economy depends very much on the 100,000 Palestinian workers in Israel.

The tourism industry has been hit hard in both the Israeli and Palestinian economies. In Palestine, Masri says there is not a single hotel that is operational.

“Thank goodness this may be the fastest sector to recover because tourists come here for holy shrines or history. The coronavirus isn’t going to change Bethlehem or Jerusalem and what happened here in religion and history.”

Masri’s company operates hotels in Bethlehem, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem that he says were immediately converted to hotels for the quarantine efforts.

“They have become the main place to put people in quarantine,” Masri says.

He said they also worked with the government to secure safety supplies early. His team set up a COVID-19 testing center in Nablus in one their buildings that is used to feed the essential medical workers. He says it is all part of the social responsibility of being Palestinian. Palestine does not have unemployment benefits, and Masri says the private sector is bearing much of the burden.

“I don’t think in Palestine the private sector has laid off anyone, yet. We made a commitment we will not layoff or reduce salaries because of the disease or because of the crisis. We can only do it so long, but hopefully we can do it until the end of the year,” Masri says. “I think this is the difference between Palestine and maybe other neighboring nations like Jordan, versus in the west where millions of people have been laid off immediately.”

Masri says he disapproves of the possible annexation of the West Bank during a pandemic. He says Israel’s handling of Palestinian workers during the quarantine was unorganized describing it as “fooly coordinated” during a rise of COVID-19 cases in Israel. He says the proposed annexation of the West Bank will “just add fuel to the fire and that is a disaster for Palestinians way beyond the coronavirus.”

Masri says Israel should wait until the world pulls out of the COVID -19 crisis, because it is the ethical thing to do.

“It is shameful some Israeli leaders and some international leader, particularly the United States, want to implement a strategic historic unilateral decision that has not been agreed to by the Palestinians,” he says.

Israel is being heavily criticized by the international community and the E.U. for the possible annexation, but Masri says that’s not enough.

“….wait until we able pull out of the crisis, not just us and  Israel, but until the whole world is out of the crisis,” Masri says. “Certainly Israel could do more or less, if they didn’t anything that would be better for us. I wish the international community would forget the Palestinians…They’re only remembering Palestinians now by implementing the annexation plan….it’s the only politics being talked about on Palestine.”

Wissam Seder, entrepreneur and Palestinian founding member of The Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce, says the proposed plan combined with the Israeli government’s sincere effort to provide more opportunities and improve the economic situation would help Palestinians create a better life.

Right now, he says they are waiting to see how everyday life will change under the plan.

“Until now we have to be more optimistic with what will happen on the ground,” Seder says. “The most important thing we are looking for is what will happen with the current trade relationship or what kind of changes will be open for people in this area that will be controlled by Israeli government.”

Zimmerman says if Israel applies sovereignty over the West Bank it has a responsibility to a more comprehensive approach to development. He says everything beyond the green line has been developed by the civil administration, but in a “patchwork” of putting out fires and finding local solutions for systemic problems.

He says plans involving new railroads that could connect some Palestinian areas to the Haifa Port which will allow greater access for goods, sidelining some of the checkpoints along the way, and a more streamlined export for Palestinian goods. Zimmerman also highlighted the free trade zones like Sha’ar Hayarden along the Jordan border as having a lot of room for growth.

There are already potential opportunities outside of sovereignty that have resulted from the coronavirus where he says there is a pivot away from globalization which creates more opportunities for coordination between Israeli and Palestinian business sectors. The largest Israeli company with operations out of Rawabi City is Mellanox, a supplier of computer networking products recently acquired by Nvidia. Masri says he is happy to have a $200 billion company hiring at least 130 to 140 people in a city of 5,000.

Zimmerman says he’s envious of the opportunities that could come out of a Rawabi partnership. He says in his experience business is leading the movement towards change in the region.

“The strongest kind of healthy relationships between Israelis and Palestinians are happening at the work place. By seeing that time and time again, although it’s not very public, on a daily basis there’s ongoing business ties between Israelis and Palestinians. People are happy to have food on their tables and happy to live normal lives that are not marked by the nature of the conflict.”

About the Author
Patrice Worthy is a reporter at the Atlanta Jewish Times where she writes about Israeli politics, food, art and culture, ethnic Jewry and Jews in the Diaspora.
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