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Middle East

Palestinians dig deep for economic independence

The Palestinian Authority has unveiled plans to explore for oil in the West Bank, which it says is a key step toward developing the local economy and gaining independence from Israel.

Mohammed Mustafa, the Palestinians' deputy prime minister for economic affairs, says the Palestinians are currently seeking proposals from international firms to explore and develop oil in the northern West Bank, which is close to Israel's Meged oil field.

The Meged was first discovered near the towns of Kfar Saba and Rosh Ha'Ayin in the 1980s but its commercially viability was really only discovered in 2004. Production began in 2010. The field holds an estimated 200 million tonnes of oil.

Much of the West Bank's proposed 400 square-kilometer exploration area remains under full Israeli control and there's doubt over whether or not Israel would agree to the project. So far, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has declined to comment.

Mustafa, a former World Bank official, estimates the project could generate around $1 billion for the Palestinian Authority.

He said the authority will need investment partners and will be accepting bids from potential partners until June.

Oil expert Dr Amit Mor told DW the project would need those investment partners as he calculates it could cost up to $10 million just to get to the point of exploration. And he's certain there will need to be cooperation from Israel. "If discovered in significant quantities, it can contribute to the Palestinian economy," he told DW.

Not getting too excited

But Mor concedes it's still a long way off development and isn't getting too excited just yet. Neither is the chief executive of the Palestinian Stock Exchange, Ahmad Aweidah. He says the exchange has had a buoyant few months, with better than expected financial results for 2013.

"That all changed in the last fortnight because of the latest political developments around peace negotiations.That has had a negative effect on prices on the market and the exchange so the market has not been doing that well recently," he told DW.

There's no denying the economic figures paint a less than buoyant picture for the West Bank and that it still relies heavily on trade with Israel.

Figures from economic development think-tank The Portland Trust show Israel accounted for 86 percent of the Palestinian economy's exports and 59 percent of its imports last year.

Powerplant Photo: Majdi Fath

Diversity is key if the Palestinian economy wants to wean itself off Israeli dependency

Managing director Kamel Husseini said diversification is crucial for the economy and for the sustainability of its exports.

"The implementation of private sector-led, coordinated export strategies aimed at promoting high-potential activities, including agricultural products and IT services, is also critical," he told DW.

Last year, the West Bank's trade deficit stood at a colossal $3.7 billion and in 2012 the GDP per capita in the West Bank was just $1,924 and $876 in Gaza.

Husseini is also part of a delegation of concerned business men and women from Israel and the West Bank called "Breaking the Impasse." He said business can't live in uncertainty and he wants political leaders to break the stalemate."There's no end in sight, we need a two-state solution."

No gains without peace

Others in the group agree that without peace, there won't be booming business, or an increase in GDP for the West Bank.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce disagrees that the West Bank is too reliant on Israel. Its CEO Baruch Mazor said the economy has improved in the past couple of years - in a very significant way.

He said despite a high unemployment of up to 39 percent in some sectors, all the indicators show the standard of living is getting higher and higher. "I wouldn't say the economy was reliant on Israel - they can buy whatever they want. The money is theirs. But buying from Israel is a very logical way of doing business - it's a short distance away and for the Palestinians, it's quite comfortable. For Israel, it's an export business and you do business in the modern world when both sides are happy with the model," Mazor told DW.

He said opportunities like oil exploration will help the state and boost the GDP, but he isn't expecting a silver bullet.

"I can only assume that if you have oil and produce it, and have it in your own land, it will bring a lot of money to the country and it will influence the GDP. The GDP is mainly not influenced by money pouring from outside the country. They have to produce in order to create a better GDP. I don't think it will create millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of jobs but it will produce income for the government and then there will be more public investment and growth."

Sooner or later

Regardless of the timing, Ahmad Aweidah from the Palestine Exchange thinks oil exploration would definitely be welcomed by the country. "More revenue for the government is always very good news for the economy. First it will filter down to the government coffers - public finance. And then it will filter down to the businesses that will be involved. The prospects for the macro-economy should absolutely have a positive impact on the exchange, for sure."

two men staring at each other

Not seeing eye-to-eye is not helping

But in the short-term, Aweidah isn't so sure West Bank business can bounce back following the collapse of the peace talks. He said fundamentally things haven't changed. "The performance of companies isn't going to radically change in such a short period of time. It takes time before you see the impact of events on the financial result. But also you need to understand we are hostage to the political environment that we work with."

As for the viability of oil discovery and exploration, Amit Mor said it's entirely possible, but given the field is so close to Israel's Meged, it will depend largely on how successful production there is.

"Yes I hope for the Palestinians, I hope they find their own resources and if found, that it's saleable and economically viable to develop those deposits," he said.

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