(Communicated by the GPO)

The GPO today (Tuesday), 30 August 2005, held a foreign press briefing with Lt.-Col. Daniel Beaudoin, Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Foreign Relations Branch, and Lt.-Col. Baruch Persky, Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Economic Branch.  Following are excerpts of their remarks in response to questions:

Lt.-Col. Beaudoin: The disengagement doesn’t bring to an end our cooperation with the Palestinians. It put to an end our military presence in the Gaza Strip. We know from Dahlan that the Palestinians also, I mean truthfully, are looking for a partner in stabilizing their economic situation. It’s not something that can be done over a day. We can go into analysis why over the occupation the Palestinian Authority didn’t find time to educate its people to more transparent ways of dealing with money, but that’s not the situation now. The situation is on an economic level, project level, coordinating level, we will continue.  We will continue to work with them. I know that it is Dahlan’s wish as well. As you know, we are relocating the district coordination and liaison office from Erez, which is on Palestinian territory, about 500-600 meters northwest into Israeli territory. We are keeping several key offices open in order to continue to interlocute with the Palestinians.

The international organization office will continue to operate because there will be a lot of international involvement in what is going to happen in the Gaza Strip. The World Bank, the donor community, UNRRWA and the major aid agencies will not be leaving. They’re thinking of job-generating, they’re looking at job-generating programs for the future and less dependency on foodstuffs, which I think is a positive trend anyway. That’s the way the UNDP works by the way. Also there are issues to be discussed. For example, the airport, the port, continuity between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, cargo, goods, people, all these issues will need to be discussed and we do this at several levels of course, from our level to the political level. So, there’s still work and we are not disengaging from the Palestinians.

Lt.-Col Persky: I don’t remember the exact number but the Karni crossing was closed for around 40 days in 2004. I do have exact numbers for the industrial zone in Erez. In 2003, this industrial zone was closed for only 8 days during the year. In 2004, it was closed for 151 days. The Erez industrial zone was a symbol of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Around 5,000 employees worked in this industrial zone during 2003. What happened is that the terrorist groups wanted to sabotage this symbol of cooperation and they made some terrorist attacks. Also, two soldiers of our units were killed in this crossing in January 2004. After several terrorist attacks, we almost closed this industrial zone. Later, we allowed around 800 workers to come back, only those over 40, I think. And that’s the story of Erez.

Lt.-Col. Beaudoin: The idea on a strategic level is to cooperate in order for the Palestinian Authority to have the means to continue and to manage. It depends also a lot on them, there’s only that much you can do to bring the horse to the trough, but our idea is to leave an operational economic situation not a transfer of knowledge. For example, you talked about medical cooperation. It will continue. We have the WHO statistic of approximately 700 patients who come into Israel on a monthly basis to Soroka Hospital in Be’er Sheva. We have medical exchange. It’s going to continue. That’s not going to end. We’re not going to stop talking to the Palestinians on project implementation. We’re not going to stop talking to the Palestinians if they wish so on US aid, for example, on renewing two of its major projects in the Gaza Strip regarding water. One is the north-south carrier; the other is the desalination project.  They were stopped because Americans were murdered by terrorists at Erez crossing and the US basically stopped the projects for fear of the contractors’ lives, but water is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

We’ve been so involved with these issues for such a long time that I think that the Palestinians realize, Dahlan realizes we think, that it is best to continue talking to us about that. The World Bank talks about six, seven years I think, that it will take for the PA to reach economic stability. I think that this was the latest report. So this is at least the period it’s going to take in order for us to assist them in doing so.

This data is the data of the Palestinians, of the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. They have a website on the internet and you can go into the site and see all the details.  he World Bank takes the data from this source. We also have cooperation with the economists of the World Bank and we are all together on the same data. But I would like to give you some more information.

In 2004, the rate of unemployment was 35%. You have two different ways to measure unemployment. You have the international standards of the ILO, the International Labor Organization. According to this standard, the figure last year was 35%. There is another method to measure unemployment, namely also counting those who despaired of searching for work. According to this method, the rate last year was 40%. By any method, the numbers are not more than 45%. I would like also to remind you that before 2000, before all the terrorist attacks, the rate of unemployment, in the entire area of the Palestinian Authority, was only 11% – in the West Bank, it was 8% and in the Gaza Strip it was 16%. That was in 2000, before the last conflict. In Israel last year, it was around 10%. In Egypt, for example, the rate is around 12% unemployment. In the last year, in 2004, the percentage [of unemployment] in the West Bank was 23% by the international standard and 29% by the other method. Before the conflict in 2000, it was 5% in the West Bank by the international standard and 13% by the other method.

With regard to Karni. Israel is making efforts to improve the facility. In the last two months, the Airport Authority extended the working hours to 23:00. We also got a new extra machine for containers during 2004 but each terrorist attack returned us back. We know about one case of corruption on the Israeli side but on the Palestinian side, there is a lot.

Lt.-Col Persky: With regard to employment from the Gaza Strip to Israel, the numbers have increased by 200%. The terrorist attacks had a big influence on the policy to let in employees from the Gaza Strip. But in the last month, we allowed around almost 10,000 employees to enter and the number of days of working in the six months between January and June were 260,000 workdays, as compared to 84,000 in the last six months of 2004.

According to the Disengagement Plan, the Israeli government decided that during the next three years, 15,000 employees will be allowed into Israel from the Gaza Strip and 20,000 from the West Bank. The policy of our government is that those numbers will go down until the end of 2008. Right now this is the policy of Israel. The responsibility for workers from the Gaza Strip is not the same from before the Disengagement Plan and after. That’s why the government has decided about this policy and right now this is the policy.

Lt.-Col. Beaudoin: Our cooperation with Dahlan is mainly in the civilian sphere. There will also be security coordination run by the security people. Regarding the collecting of weapons, I think that there are more questions than answers here. For example, you know that we are working together with the European Union. It’s a European Union effort to strengthen the Palestinian police force. They are here in full force, the EU, and they have police advisers in the field actually trying to educate the Palestinians to handle the weapons that are in the field in a responsible manner.

The challenge of the European Union and those involved in trying to strengthen the security forces is huge because there is a complete lack of transparency and a democratic policing doctrine. If the Oslo accords allow 20,000 weapons for the PA force in the Gaza Strip, we reckon that there are close to 40,000 in the field. I’m not talking about militant groups and terrorist groups. I’m talking about the security forces, the preventive security forces and the police forces. If the last time a weapon was checked was something like 10 years ago, then this is a problem.

I’m talking to you about the little things. I’m talking to you about the practice of shooting into the air in celebration. There are plenty of weapons – what you have is a lack of will. You have plenty of weapons in the field. You have a lack of courageous decisions. You have a lack of dealing with the situation. You cannot eat the cake and have it remain whole as much as you want it to. It doesn’t work, it simply doesn’t work. There is a complete lack of organizational preparedness. They’ve been so busy trying to blow us up for the last 30 years and they haven’t been putting enough effort into trying to find some sort of way of building a viable system. And this is our expectation for the future.

Even the international community is expecting that of the Palestinians today, and I’m surprised. I’ve been on the job for seven years so I have some sort of historical perspective and I can see how the Europeans are coming to the Palestinians today and are demanding transparency – not only fiscal transparency on what happens with donor money, but also security transparency. Do you have procedures in place? How are you going to train these people? How are we going to bring about change in the Palestinian police force? How are you going to deal with corruption? How are you going to deal with gangs? How are you going to deal with kidnappings of internationals in order to release some guy who was apprehended because he ripped off a car?

I remember Ben-Gurion, at the beginning of the State of Israel, how he sank Menachem Begin’s ship just off Jaffa, the Altalena. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to show that he was the guy running the show and I don’t care that you brought weapons from Italy. He was saying: If you don’t hand them over to the IDF and to me as the sovereign leader, then we’re going to shell your ship. We cannot have a whole bunch of groups doing what they like. And Menachem Begin said all sorts of juicy words in Hebrew so they sank his ship.

In the end, it comes to this. It comes to will, it comes to making things happen. And you don’t make things happen by sitting around boardrooms with Hamas. It happens when you take action and this has not happened. And it’s going to have to happen and I think that the international community is very encouraging on this. Even they are more adamant about it than we are almost and I’m really surprised that it came to this.

I’m trying to make a differentiation between the economic future and the security future of the Gaza Strip but both are interlinked. So when I talk about expectations of Palestinian maturity in dealing with a police force in a Western manner, this will link up in some way to what will happen in the Gaza Strip. Because if the Gaza Strip becomes an Islamabad and it bursts at the seems with RPG’s within six months, this will have an influence on how the economy is going to look – I promise you. If Dehaniye airport will become an airlifting center for RPG’s, it’s going to be a problem. And if the port of Gaza becomes just another way of lining the pockets of proxies and bringing in more weapons, then that’s going to influence the way we look at the viable options of helping the Palestinians together to make it a better place.