By RON FRIEDMAN
Quartet envoy Tony Blair’s office congratulated the Israeli government for its decision on Monday to allow tourist buses to enter Palestinian territories through the Jalama vehicle crossing.The Defense Ministry said it approved the move in light of the improvement in the region’s security situation.“The introduction of buses will allow Palestinian tour operators to revive the biblical route connecting the tourist sites in the Galilee with Jerusalem and Bethlehem, taking in historical tourist sites throughout the West Bank along the way,” read a statement issued by his office.The statement followed a visit Blair held last week in the historical site of Sebastia. Blair visited the archeological site near Nablus and met with local businesses as well as leaders of the Arab-Israeli tourism sector, who arrived from Nazareth through Jalama.The representatives discussed additional ways of promoting the West Bank’s tourist potential among Israeli Arabs and international visitors.After his visit Blair said, “I was fascinated to visit Sebastia today, with its wealth of archaeological heritage and history, and to see the massive potential of place for regenerating the tourism industry in the northern West Bank. It is one of the most impressive places I have visited.”“Last year, Tony Blair approached Ehud Barak with the idea of opening the Jalama crossing for vehicles in an effort to boost the Palestinian economy in the region. Barak liked the idea and began putting into effect the security arrangements that were necessary,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror.Advertisement“The funding was secured from US AID and in November private vehicles were allowed to flow through the crossing. Today, two to three hundred cars pass through during weekdays and on weekends 600 vehicles go from Israel to Jenin and the surrounding areas.“We are taking it one step at a time,” said Dror. “Jenin and its inhabitants realized that once the security situation improved, the city rediscovered itself and its potential. We hope that it will have a positive effect on other Palestinian cities and are already seeing improvements in places like Ramallah, Tulkarm and Kalkiliya.”Up until now, most of the people who used the crossing were Arab citizens of Israel, but it is hoped that the flow of international tourists will increase.The regional council of Gilboa recently entered a joint tourism project with Jenin, which will see groups of tourists visit the Lower Galilee for a few days, followed by a visit to Jenin and surrounding areas.Blair’s office said the Quartet will continue to promote additional measures to boost the potential of the Palestinian tourism sector.“If we could remove the key obstacles, you can see the development potential for Palestinians. Now that we have seen the opening of the Jalama crossing, we need to encourage and promote the ‘Nativity Route’ between Nazareth and Bethlehem, which would vastly increase the number of people visiting Sebastia, both international and Israeli-Arab visitors alike,” said Blair.Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who holds the portfolio forregional cooperation, said he too welcomed the opening of the crossingto tour buses.“The crossing was recently opened to vehicles with the assistance ofthe Ministry of Regional Cooperation and now it will allow [theentrance of] additional tourists through the authorization of buses,”said Shalom. “This is an extension of a forward-looking trend ofincreased cooperation and investments.”
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