With UK exports to the Palestinian territories up by more than 300 percent this year, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said on Monday that the UK must continue to forge stronger trade ties with the Palestinian Authority despite the economic slowdown. Lord Mandelson was speaking at the Palestine Investment Forum in London on Monday morning. "The UK's commitment to peace in the Middle East must not be weakened by economic difficulties," Mandelson said. "Growth of the Palestinian economy is crucial for driving forward change for the better." Hosted by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government's business development organization, and the Department for International Development, and organized by the Middle East Association, the Forum was designed to encourage UK business to consider the Palestinian Authority as a trade and investment partner. "We need economic and political progress to move in parallel and one of the key ways to achieve this is to strengthen links between the UK and Palestinian private sectors," Mandelson added. "Today's Forum is an opportunity for UK businesses to learn more about the Palestinian economy, future business potential and to challenge the UK' s perceptions about doing business in Palestine." The Palestinian territories remain a challenging market for UK companies, with the foundation for a dynamic relationship are already in place. In the first nine months of 2008, UK exports of goods to Palestine were up by more than 305 percent to Â£2.3 million. UK exports for the same period last year were Â£596,000. UK exports include vehicles as well as cereals, coffee, tea and spices; medicinal and pharmaceutical products and professional and scientific equipment. "In tough economic times, UK exporters are being more creative and seeking out new markets. We're urging UK businesses to remember that Palestine is open for business," Gareth Thomas, Minister for Trade and Development, said. "A strong Palestinian economy is essential for sustainable peace in the Middle East and to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians. This Forum will build on the success of the Bethlehem conference, and will forge partnerships between UK and Palestinian businesses. By showing global companies that there are opportunities in an untapped market, we can reverse years of economic decline and create new levels of prosperity in the region," he added. Several important developments were announced at the Business Forum including, the establishment of the Palestine Britain Business Council, a private group of senior UK and Palestinian business representatives established to help facilitate bilateral trade and investment in the Palestinian territories.