Dave Bender
July 28, 2011 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM, July 27 (Xinhua) -- On a media tour on Tuesday featuring commercial, health and hi-tech cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, representatives sought to project a " business-as-usual" mien, while, half a world away both sides sparred at the United Nations Security Council over a possible Palestinian National Authority (PNA) bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly in September.

During a mid-morning visit to the sprawling Tarkumiya Crossing Point near Hebron - the largest in the West Bank - several forklifts were busy loading and unloading Palestinian goods, from produce to building materials, on dozens of semi-trailer trucks on the steaming black tarmac. Hundreds of pallets of merchandise and raw materials were headed for transshipment to and from Israel, to Gaza, and to ports for export.

"It's 50 to 50 incoming and outgoing," according to manager Tzion Alon, who touted an average 42 minutes for goods to transverse the crossing. The "back-to-back" transfer system is necessary due to differing Israeli and PNA road worthiness requirements.

In a separate fenced-off lane, Israeli technicians operating a mobile, truck-bed mounted x-ray scanner peered into the innards of a row of shipping containers atop flatbed trailers, seeking hidden contraband or arms. Alon said the Israeli Ministry of Defense pays for the ongoing daily operations, including six million U.S. dollars for three of the scanners, while American and international assistance covers the rest of the technology used to run the facility.

Additionally, "Palestinians don't have to pay for using the facility in either direction," or any export tax, Alon said via a translator. Responding to a reporter's question of the possibility that under-the-table cash might expedite transfers - as has been claimed happened in the past at Gaza crossing points - Alon was adamant. "We learned a lesson from that, and we have no part in who goes through when; they (the drivers) decide among themselves on their place in line."

The civilian-operated Tarkumiya facility opened in 2007, replacing a smaller military-run facility about two kilometers away that could only manage several dozens trucks a day, officials said.


"If you were visiting the West Bank in the years from 2001 to 2005, it would have been a completely different scenario... we were experiencing a wave of terror, road shootings, car bombs, suicide bombers - a very difficult and complex military and humanitarian situation," Lt.-Col. Avi Shalev, head of the International Organizations and Foreign Affairs Branch of the Civil Administration (CA), told reporters in a briefing held at the facility's warren of cinder block offices.

The CA is a branch of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which is under the control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). COGAT runs 1,000 military and civilian personnel who work to "promote civilian cooperation and are responsible for the humanitarian welfare of people in the West Bank," Shalev said.

Tarkumiya also processes Palestinian day-workers, tradesmen, and businessmen entering Israel, according to Alon.

"The number of people traveling from the West Bank to Israel has quadrupled," according to Shalev. "About 3,500 Palestinians pass through daily from 04:00 am until 7:30 pm," Alon said, adding that the facility sees about 1,000 trucks between 06:00 am and evening.

"The situation, from a military perspective, has changed considerably in last five-six years," Shalev told reporters, pointing out that the sea-change in daily relations came in the wake of Hamas' coup in Gaza, ousting Fatah from governance of the coastal enclave.

"In 2005-2006, the realization basically came to the west Bank that security is important for both sides. It's not just an Israeli concern, it's both an Israeli and Palestinian interest," Shalev said.


Software entrepreneur Murad Tahboub, 42, is one of the Palestinians who hopes to benefit from the West Bank economy's nine percent growth rate in 2010.

"I started Asal Technologies almost ten years ago, with the objective of providing software development services to the international market," Tahboub said over lunch, seated next to Israeli businesswoman Zika Abzuk, senior manager of corporate affairs for the local office of international IT giant, Cisco Systems.

Asal is already working with about a dozen clients in Israel and abroad, Tahboub noted, and stressed that his culture accentuated education.

There are 11 accredited universities in the West Bank and Gaza, Tahboub said. The 2,000 annual graduates in computer sciences, engineering, programming, and mathematics, are eager to replicate Israel's highly-touted hi-tech sector, but on Palestinian terms.

However, while some 30 percent find jobs in their fields, the other 70 percent were more likely to find work in related service fields, or remain unemployed due to the miniscule size of the nascent Palestinian IT sector, according to Tahboub.

But for the Kuwaiti-born Tahboub, who lived in several countries for many years before returning to his parents homeland, his own 80-employee, Ramallah-based company was eager to beat Indian and eastern European rivals at their own software outsourcing game.

"We have several advantages that we can offer to the Israeli and European markets, like the same time zones, English capabilities - we teach English from first grade in all of our schools, the cost factors as well as cultural issues," he said, comparing Palestinians to both Israelis and Lebanese.

"Plenty of them live abroad," Tahboub pointed out.

"I have in my company 10 employees who used to live abroad, in Italy, in the US, in Germany, and they came back because they found an opportunity to stay with their families, and at the same time, have a decent job."


Zika said there were four principal reasons her firm was backing enterprises like Tahboub's.

"There's commitment, cost, convenience and culture," she said, echoing Tahboub's comparisons with typical Israeli marketing points.

"The greatest achievement from Cisco's point of view, is that we managed to bring the spirit of collaboration and sharing that we experience every day," Zika explained.

"Cisco Systems is investing 10 million U.S. dollars to seed a model of job creation and economic development in the Palestinian territories," over a three-year period, according to Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers.

Asal is one of a number of outsourcing companies that Cisco is supporting, as part of a larger corporate effort to develop Palestinian business and technical leadership.

"We just hope this will percolate upwards because we believe that Israelis and Palestinians have been playing the 'zero-sum game' a little too long, so it's time for a change and looking at it differently," Zika concluded.

But Tahboub admits that promoting Palestine as an outsourcing destination to firms abroad "was like carving in stone," when images of bloodshed and an intractable conflict with his Israeli neighbor were foremost in the minds of potential clients.

However, one of his strong selling points was the fact that "we have a very vibrant private sector. For the past three years we've had an eight-to-nine percent GDP growth. Imagine how we will be doing if we have a resolution of the conflict and total peace," he mused.

For Tahboub, "generation of employment in my ideology is one of the key factors for sustainability in the region," something he believes would give hope for a future to a war-torn area.

"I am doing it for the sake of Palestine, and Zika is doing it for the sake of Israel and Palestine, because having a good Palestinian economy is one of the essentials of security factors for Israel," Tahboub said.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017