On Monday morning a group of Israeli businessmen gathered at the Dan Panorama hotel in Tel Aviv to have breakfast and hear a lecture by a prominent Palestinian business leader with political aspirations. The meeting was hosted by the Israeli-Palestinian chambers of commerce and the lecture was about investment opportunities in a major Palestinian city.
Though he was confident enough to hold a lecture before an Israeli audience, the speaker refused to be interviewed by The Jerusalem Post, fearing that exposure in the Israeli media would harm him politically. He also refused to have his name or city of residence published.
Though nothing that was said in the address was particularly novel or
controversial, for the most part the speaker spoke about “the
difficulties of doing business under the Israeli occupation” and boasted
about the high quality of university graduates in his city and a
handful of new initiatives promoted by the Palestinian Authority.
The forum for the lecture, the Israeli-Palestinian Chambers of Commerce
(IPCC), was established in October 2008 as a non-profit NGO by leading
Israeli business people and economic organizations who sought to enhance
bilateral trade and investments between Israel and the Palestinian
Authority. According to Eival Gilady, the IPCC’s chairman and a retired
Brigadier General, business ties between Israelis and Palestinians exist
and have even strengthened in the recent months, but there is a major
fear on the Palestinian street of exposing those ties publicly – a fear
of the appearance of normal ties between the two sides.
“I think the fear exists on two levels.
On one hand there are those who avoid doing business with Israelis so
they don’t appear to be collaborating with the occupation.
But there is another level, which goes undeclared, but which I identify,
which is people who don’t fear to do business, but fear to be exposed
as doing so,” said Gilady.
“With time we have come to respect that attitude. In the beginning it
was really important for us to highlight our achievements, but we came
to realize that it was more important for accomplishments to happen than
for us to be able to tell the world about them. If the cost is letting
them operate on a low profile, without them having to pay a price for
their exposure, we are willing to sacrifice the publicity in favor of
Under the radar, the IPCC, together with its parent bodies, the Peres
Center for Peace and the Portland Trust, of which Gilady is the CEO, has
been hard at work at creating opportunities for greater cooperation
between Israeli and Palestinian business people.
“We believe that it is in our interest that the Palestinian economy
function in a proper fashion, that normal daily routines become
entrenched, that people wake up in the morning, send their children to
school and go to work and earn a decent income.
This is an interest that serves both the economical and security
interests of Israel,” said Gilady. “I don’t fear competition. If anybody
tells you that Palestinian success threatens Israel, it’s ridiculous.
The Palestinian economy is about four percent of the size of the Israeli
economy. We are a giant economy compared to them.”
THE ACTIVITIES of the IPCC include identifying likely investors for
Palestinian companies, bringing business people together to create
cooperations and solving specific problems that come up with the
authorities on both sides.
According to Gilady, there is no national Palestinian- Israeli Chambers
of Commerce on the other side for the IPCC to work with, and the IPCC
works with local or regional chambers of commerce instead. “We have ties
with the chambers of commerce of Ramallah, Hebron or Jenin, but as of
yet no national body has been formed,” he said. “I do believe that such
an agency will be created in the future and have discussed it with
Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, but we are waiting for the conditions
to ripen. The hesitancy, as far as I can tell, is due to fear on the
Palestinian side that such a move will play into the hands of Prime
Minister Netanyahu’s initiative for economic peace, which they see as a
way of avoiding progress on the political front.”
The fact that Palestinians do business with Israelis is unavoidable.
Israel is the Palestinian Authority’s largest trade partner.
Palestinians import roughly $3 billion worth of Israeli goods and export
$400 million worth of goods to Israel every year. “Without Israel, the
Palestinian economy would crumble. I’d like to see all those who say we
should not do business with Israel survive for one day if the borders
were to be closed off,” said ‘K’, a Palestinian businessman who deals in
manufactured goods. “On any given day, if you go to the market
neighborhood in Tel Aviv, you will see hundreds of Palestinian merchants
offloading goods. Everybody works with Israelis. Everybody knows that
people work with Israelis only some talk about it and some don’t. But
even those who don’t talk about it, you can be sure that their family,
their neighbors and their customers know about it.”
‘K’ said that in the past few decades he has seen ups and downs in the
business ties between Palestinians and Israelis, but that through it
all, the goods have gone through. “In Gaza there is virtually no choice
but to work with Israelis. Palestinians there are totally dependent on
Israelis. In the West Bank they are at least partially self sufficient,
in Gaza that is not an option,” said ‘K’.
According to ‘K’, Gaza merchants are even dependent on Israel for
“Because of the situation in Gaza, it is better for merchants to buy the
goods from Israeli importers and pay the extra fees, than attempt to
import the goods themselves.
Chances are good that the shipments will get stuck at the port for
months or even years.”
“People know that I do business with Israelis, but so far nobody has
said anything critical about it to me. In truth, it is impossible to try
and hide it and therefore pointless. I go to Israel for a few days
every month and have never been refused a travel permit either by the
Israelis or the Palestinians.
On the surface, there is pressure by the government to restrict business
The government wants to present itself as being strong and
self-sufficient, but it’s all political. If the borders were closed
tomorrow, everybody would be shouting for help,” said ‘K’.
Yoav Stern, Director of the Business & Economics Department at the
Peres Center for Peace, said that the attitude towards doing business
with Israel varied depending on the industry.
“In the hi-tech sector for example, it is considered politically
incorrect for Palestinians to do business with Israelis. In other
sectors however, the links are unavoidable and less emphasis is stressed
on preventing business ties.”
Both Stern and Gilady said that they had recently identified a new trend
of boldness and openness among Palestinian businessmen, people that are
pragmatic enough to realize that in order to advance economically the
Palestinians will need to continue to cooperate with Israel and proud to
be taking part in the national effort towards independence.
“Palestinian business people tell me that if, up until a few years ago,
they didn’t want to expose their business ties because of the negative
picture it paints; after all how could they continue to do business and
prosper while there are people living in refugee camps, today they
realize that in order to establish a sustainable state, a prospering
business sector is required. They realize that the business they do is
not only legal and proper, but that it also serves Palestinian society,”