By LAURA KELLY
A pair of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders are hoping their joint initiative can spur investment in one of the most politically charged regions of the world – the West Bank – and are seeking a boost from allies in the Trump administration to make it a reality.
Ashraf Jabari, a Palestinian businessman from Hebron, and Avi Zimmerman, a former international spokesman for an Israeli settlement, believe their grassroots movement can promote investments in a region that has long faced violence and turbulent economic conditions amid ongoing conflict among local leaders.
The two traveled to Washington, D.C., this month to meet with lawmakers and build up recognition for their project, named The Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Their goal is to spark investment in the West Bank in five areas: manufacturing, technology, tourism, infrastructure and environmental renewal.
The name of their organization itself is isolating from Palestinians. Referring to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria is considered political, given that it’s the Biblical Jewish name for the area – something right-wing Israelis tout as evidence for Jewish land claims dating back more than 2,000 years.
Jabari says that working with Israelis is about adopting the language that they use, both speaking in Hebrew and using terms that acknowledge the situation on the ground. “The reality is an Israeli presence in the region,” he says in Hebrew and translated by Zimmerman.
The business leaders face other cultural barriers in their partnership: For a Palestinian to partner with an Israeli settler can amount to treason in the Palestinian community, with punishments ranging from being ostracized to facing extreme threats of violence.
Jabari says he personally feels safe but can understand why other Palestinian’s would stay away or play down interactions with Israelis.
He is dismissed by Palestinians as working on the fringes of society in his interactions with Israeli settlers – underscoring the steep opposition their project faces from gaining wider Palestinian or international support.
And while the duo are forced to operate within the realities on the ground, they believe they have an advantage in their efforts with powerful allies in the Trump administration.
In February, Jabari and Zimmerman hosted an economic forum in Jerusalem, with the keynote address delivered by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Also in attendance was Sen. James Lankford
In June, Jabari also led the only Palestinian delegation to Bahrain for an economic summit hosted by Jared Kushner
, President Trump
’s son-in-law and senior adviser, where Kushner unveiled the economic platform of the administration’s broader and still-unreleased Middle East Peace plan.
The summit was boycotted by the Palestinian Authority and more prominent Palestinian business leaders. The Trump administration has had strained relations with the Palestinian Authority the past two years after President Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there.
Jabari and Zimmerman are also working to build ties with U.S. lawmakers. They said Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s (D-Mich.) office reached out to them when the congresswoman, who is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, was planning to travel to the Palestinian territories, before she was blocked from entering Israel. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.
The two men did host a delegation of Republican lawmakers at Jabari’s home in Hebron in August. They included Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.).
Rodgers, who is also the Republican Representative to the United Nations, called the two men’s initiative “an untold story in the West Bank.”
“Sheikh Ashraf Jabari told us the economic relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is basic, strong, and can’t be separate,” she said in a statement to The Hill, using a formal title to address Jabari.
“In a strong bipartisan way, we should be supporting the grassroots movement for economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s foundational to achieve peace in the region.”
Israel oversees the majority of the flow of goods and services into areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, putting Palestinian businesses on more unequal footing. Unemployment in the West Bank among Palestinians is around 15 percent, according to the World Bank.
More than 1 million Palestinians worked in Israel in October, according to the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli administration that handles civilian matters in the West Bank.
But Jabari and Zimmerman note that any change in the security or political situation could ground those interactions to a halt.
“We have a certain set of givens within which we work and those givens can change any day,” Zimmerman told The Hill.
Meanwhile, approximately 400,000 Israelis live in communities described as settlements in the West Bank, recognized as illegal under international law by the global community and criticized as expanding on territory designated for any future, sovereign Palestinian state.
In addition to communities, Israeli settlements boast a university and numerous businesses including farms, wineries and manufacturing plants that employ Palestinians. Roads that connect Israeli and Palestinian communities lead to shared commerce centers in the West Bank.
While the international community views settlements as a barrier to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zimmerman and Jabari argue that economic ties between Israelis and Palestinians must be supported to ensure the success of any peace plan.
“Whatever those circumstances will be from a political solution perspective, we already know that the stronger our integrated business community is, the more people will benefit in the future under any political circumstance.”
Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that products made in Israeli settlements must be identified as such, rather than being labeled as “made in Israel.”
Zimmerman and Jabari argued that the ruling emboldens boycott movements towards Israel that hurt Israeli businesses and Palestinian workers equally.
The Trump administration also disputes singling out Israeli settlements and hardened their policy in mid-November, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing the U.S. would reject a 1978 legal opinion that viewed Israeli settlements as inconsistent with international law.
After the administration announced it would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, it further isolated the Palestinian Authority by cutting off all funding for government and humanitarian projects, closing their representative office in Washington and ending the U.S. mission to Palestinians in Jerusalem.
Jabari, one of the last links between the administration and the Palestinians, encouraged outside individuals to see the situation on the ground for themselves.
“Anyone who wants to come is welcome to see this reality for themselves,” he said through translation. “Come for a tour of an Israeli factory where they’re hiring Palestinian employees and you’ll understand. After that let them draw their own conclusions.”