Turkey to manage Erez industrial zone

Exclusive: Turkish FM Gul scheduled to arrive Wednesday to sign deal.

erez crossing 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
erez crossing 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is scheduled to arrive Wednesday to sign separate joint declarations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority governing a Turkish role in resurrecting the Erez industrial area. According to Turkish officials, Gul was deterred neither by the growing anarchy in the Gaza Strip nor by the fact that the industrial area is located inside what is now the "no-go" zone Israel has mandated to prevent the launching of Kassam rockets toward Ashkelon. The officials said that the Turkish government "wants to push the button" on the project now, knowing that it would take months before it would come to fruition. One Israeli official described the project as "the baby" of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the plan, the Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) would manage the Erez industrial zone, and there would be major Turkish investment in plants there that would manufacture goods that would then be able to enter the EU, US and even Persian Gulf countries duty free. The hope is that both Palestinian and Israeli businessmen would also invest in this area which, before the outbreak of violence in September 2000, provided employment for thousands of Palestinian workers. The idea for Turkish management of the site was launched at a meeting of high-level Turkish, Israeli and Palestinian business leaders in Ankara last April at the formation of what has become known as the Ankara Forum. Gul was originally scheduled to come and sign the joint declarations in November, but that visit was postponed in order to nail down more details. According to Turkish officials, the declarations to be signed separately in Ramallah and with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem on Thursday are of a general nature, with a number of details still to be worked out. The officials said that the security arrangements in Erez still needed to be finalized with the PA, as there has been some talk of Turkish security firms providing security at the site. The Turkish media reported earlier this year that the site might employ up to 6,000 Palestinian workers. Likewise, details have to be worked out with Israel regarding the movement of the goods out of Erez and to market. The Turks, according to Israeli officials, did not want to ship the merchandise - expected to be largely textiles - through the Rafah crossing and Egyptian ports, but would rather have it go through the Erez crossing and be shipped out of Ashdod Port. This, however, raises numerous security issues that still need to be worked out. One Israeli diplomatic official said the fact that Gul is coming especially to sign the joint declarations indicated the importance the Turks were placing on the project. This will mark Gul's second visit here since becoming foreign minister some three years ago. According to Israeli officials, the Turks were keen on the project for a number of reasons. First of all, it is part of their efforts to upgrade their profile in the area and become a significant player in the region. Second, Ankara has long argued to the Arab world that its close relationship with Israel does not hurt, but actually helps, the Palestinians, and this project helps prove that argument. And finally, Turkish firms stand to benefit handsomely from lower labor costs in Gaza and the fact that, because of various international agreements, the goods are likely to enjoy duty-free status in the US, EU and Persian Gulf. According to Israeli officials, the Palestinians stand to benefit because the project may create thousands of jobs and provide a badly needed boost to Gaza's failing economy. And, according to these officials, Israel would benefit both because it was in Israel's interest to see the Palestinian economy in Gaza develop independently, and because the project would provide "soft security" for the area since the PA would have a great deal of incentive in ensuring that terror attacks were neither launched from Erez nor took place there.