Developing transport and trade infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is the focus of a growing number of proposed donor and Palestinian Authority (PA) projects, but it remains to be seen how many of them will ever come to fruition.
Increasing trade has been marked by the World Bank as key to sustainable private sector growth; and a coherent trade strategy and an appropriate border management and customs system are PA priorities on the path to hoped-for statehood.
Several institutional and capacity-building projects are under way, launched in conjunction with the Palestinian Reform and Development Programme 2008-2010. Donors and the PA have been struggling to develop transport infrastructure like roads and international crossing points essential to move goods and people, due to access and building restrictions in the West Bank, mainly in Area C.
Over 1,000 Israeli checkpoints and physical barriers hinder the movement of goods and people in the West Bank, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Israel says there is free movement between Jenin and Hebron, and only 16 checkpoints are in operation.
The Gaza Strip remains under a four-year Israeli blockade that largely restricts the movement of goods and people.
“More than half the West Bank roadway network is in need of major rehabilitation,” said deputy minister of public works and housing Fayeq Deek, while the PA lacks funds, and the majority of major roads are in Area C.
Israel retains military authority and full control over the building and planning sphere in Area C; 70 percent of the area is classified as a firing zone, settlement areas, or nature reserves, and is inaccessible to Palestinians; 60 percent of the West Bank is in Area C.
West Bank and Gaza have a road network of about 4,900km, less than half of which is major roads that connect cities with each other and border crossings, says the World Bank.
About 2,000km are two-lane paved roads with a width of 4-7 metres, and the other roads are mostly unpaved with a width of 3-6 metres, according to the Bank.
PA officials say repeated requests for permits to rehabilitate road networks are ignored by Israeli authorities, including those between key West Bank trading centres, though the World Bank says potential trade benefits from road rehabilitation would probably be overshadowed by the constraints imposed by Israeli’s “Separation Barrier” that snakes through the West Bank.
The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the (Palestinian) Territories (COGAT) was unavailable for comment.
Qalandiya checkpoint, operated by the Israeli army, is located on the main access road – known as Jerusalem Road – between East Jerusalem and Ramallah. It is the only access point for central and northern West Bank residents to reach most areas of East Jerusalem. Additionally, the section of Jerusalem Road leading to Qalandiya is the only exit from the major West Bank city Ramallah and the surrounding area to the southern and central West Bank, including Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jericho.
A trip by car from Ramallah to East Jerusalem that would normally take 10 minutes can take over two hours, due to lengthy security procedures at the checkpoint.
Repeated requests to Israeli authorities to rehabilitate and widen the dilapidated road have been denied, public works ministry official Deek.
“An average of 30,000 vehicles crosses Qalandiya daily, and if we could build an access road to re-route the south-bound traffic, we could reduce the bottleneck,” he said.
PA transportation and public works ministries are presenting a national transportation plan (seen by IRIN but not available online) to donors. It includes a comprehensive regional road network, a Gaza seaport, airports and plans to rehabilitate an additional international crossing point – Prince Mohammed (Damiah) Bridge between Jordan and the West Bank.
The vision includes a railway line (in consultation with the Rand Corporation) looping round the West Bank, and connecting to Jordan, Gaza and Egypt, said deputy transportation minister Ali Shaath. He has submitted the plans to the Islamic Development Bank and the Union for the Mediterranean for potential funding.
PA plans include rehabilitating Gaza and Qalandiya airports, the latter located in a restricted military area under Israeli control in East Jerusalem. A third site slated for an international airport is in the Baqa’a area of East Jerusalem, also restricted to Palestinians.
“Trade Facilitation Project”
Since the closure in 2007 of Karni, Gaza’s main commercial crossing, and Rafah, Gaza’s only passenger terminal, which operates sporadically, the PA has had no opportunity to manage borders or crossings.
Palestinian customs previously worked at Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge – the West Bank’s only international crossing, located on the West Bank-Jordan border – with Israeli counterparts, but they were removed by the Israeli government in 2001.
To assist the PA in modernizing its border management system the US Agency for International Development (USAID) launched its Trade Facilitation Project in 2008, with a budget of about US$12 million for the first three years.
The project aims to facilitate the efficient movement of goods, people and services within the West Bank, between the West Bank and Gaza, and to markets abroad.
Extended to 2012, the Project supports infrastructure upgrades on the Palestinian side of selected crossings points, and is now helping the PA prepare new customs legislation, capacity-building in customs and VAT, and facilitating training in customs procedures and enforcement.
A component of the project monitors and analyses movement and access conditions, said Antonio Galli, access and policy adviser for the project in Ramallah.
“Operations at the crossing points remain time-consuming and costly,” said Galli, “with intense security procedures, strict limitations on exporting with containers, and in some cases limited infrastructure.”
Many raw materials critical to the productive sectors are classified by Israel as “dual-use” (civilian and military), and their import (to the West Bank) entails the navigation of complex procedures, creating delays and significantly increasing costs, says the World Bank.
“Sometimes even importing fax machines and telephones can be a difficult, lengthily process,” said Galli, and “the current infrastructure at Allenby would not be able to handle a large volume of goods.”
Proposed Customs Upgrade
The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is negotiating with the PA and donors for a proposed project that would modernize the PA customs system, and could be interconnected with other systems in the region, said Mahmoud Elkhafif, coordinator of UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people, based in Geneva.
“ASYCUDA is a customs system that tracks every piece of goods entering and exiting a country, to set tariffs and taxes, and to record final destination of goods,” said Elkhafif.
The budget for the 18-month project will probably be about $1.5 million and will include training in the ASYCUDA (a UN) system.
“Developing trade infrastructure, most of which is in Area C, would require Israeli cooperation that under the present conditions of occupation does not exist,” Elkhafif added.
Gaza and the West Bank are treated as part of the same customs envelope by Israel, which collects the customs taxes and is supposed to remit them monthly to the PA in Ramallah, according to the Paris Protocol signed in conjunction with the Oslo Accords in 1994.
The European Union is also helping transport organization and market diversification in oPt.
Regional Trade Project
The World Bank has proposed a regional cross-border trade facilitation and infrastructure project for Mashreq countries – Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza. The project, still in the preliminary stages, would provide a combination of technical assistance to each country, including logistics, transport, institutional capacity-building, and infrastructure developments to support railway corridors linking the countries. Phase I of the project covers 2012-2017, and phase II 2017-2025.
Technical assistance would also be provided to facilitate implementation of the ASYCUDA system for Mashreq countries. The project includes expanding international border crossings, including those between Jordan and the West Bank, and between Egypt and Gaza.
The project would rehabilitate a road linking northern West Bank communities with the commercial Prince Mohamed Bridge border crossing to Jordan. The bridge, now closed, is north of Allenby Bridge.
Due to closures and checkpoints the route to Allenby Bridge is lengthy and difficult for northern West Bank residents.
The project also includes the setting up of trade logistics centres in Jericho and Rafah, and Palestinian trucking industry reforms.