International Mideast envoy Tony Blair announced four economic projects Monday designed to create thousands of jobs for Palestinians and bolster peace efforts with Israel.
While careful not to "exaggerate the significance" of the projects, Blair said it was a "strong beginning" toward supporting peace negotiations to be formally renewed at a U.S.-backed conference in Annapolis, Md., next week.
"Without hope of prosperity, rising living standards, and an economic stake in the future for ordinary Palestinians, the politics will never succeed," the former British prime minister said at a joint news conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Blair is serving as the representative for the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - the U.S. U.N., EU and Russia.
The projects - some already in the pipeline for months - are an emergency Gaza sewage treatment plant; a Turkish-sponsored industrial park in the southern West Bank; an agroindustrial park in the West Bank town of Jericho; and cooperation on reviving the Palestinian tourism sector, with a focus on the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace.
The four programs, whose costs have not been given, could create thousands of jobs for Palestinians, Blair said. Other proposed plans to build recreational facilities and housing could generate tens of thousands more, he added.
Israel had to approve the projects because its military, citing security concerns, has severely restricted the movement of people and goods inside, to and from the Palestinian territories.
Israel sealed Gaza's borders in June, following the territory's violent takeover by Islamic Hamas militants. Hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints badly impede transport across the West Bank.
Barak announced that 24 more roadblocks and one checkpoint would be removed this week, in addition to a similar number dismantled recently.
Fayyad said he hoped all the obstacles would one day come down because they deter much-needed investment. He is preparing a new Palestinian appeal for international aid at a gathering of donor countries in Paris on Dec. 17.
Barak said that while Israel was working to disconnect itself from Gaza, it approved the sewage project in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya because it was a humanitarian program.
Construction materials for the World Bank-funded project already have been imported, Blair said.
Last week, Turkey, the Palestinians, and Israel signed a framework agreement for the industrial park in the area of the West Bank city of Hebron. Blair said a feasibility study could begin by January.
In August, Israel, Jordan and Palestinian announced plans for the joint Israeli-Palestinian agro-industrial park in Jericho, which would allow the Palestinians to export to Europe and Arab states. An access route to the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan has been agreed upon, and detailed design work can begin immediately, Blair said. ( AP )