BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 30 (UPI) -- Representatives from governments and international organizations are expected to meet in Beirut this year to draw up a strategic plan for the reconstruction of the devastated Palestinian territories, a senior U.N. official said Thursday.
Mervat Tallawy, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, told United Press International in an interview that the meeting will "lay a plan for the reconstruction of the Palestinian territories in such a way as once peace prevails, reconstruction could start."
She said the plan was for ESCWA, a regional U.N. agency which includes 13 Arab countries, to organize the conference towards the end of this year in collaboration with all other U.N. agencies.
"The situation in Palestine is extremely bad, but despite the present gloomy picture, we should think about the future," Tallawy said. She appeared confident that U.N. resolutions would be eventually implemented and "this region be allowed to live in peace."
The conference would draw up a master plan in which, "every organization, agency or donor state could contribute to the reconstruction of the Palestinian economy by choosing the projects they wish to finance." ESCWA has been asking the Palestinian Authority to define the "urgent needs and priorities.
She said estimates of Palestinian economic losses since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 ranged between $3 billion to $4 billion -- $600 million of that total since Israeli troops reoccupied parts of the West Bank and stormed the Jenin refugee camp last March.
"Between 60 and 70 percent of the Palestinians are living below the poverty line, without employment," she commented. "Shops are closed and farmers cannot work their land and if they can, they simply cannot send their agricultural products to the markets because of the Israeli blockade."
Besides the material destruction, there was the psychological damage. In her view, it could take "long years or generations to overcome the psychological barrier and lack of confidence" between Israelis and Palestinians and that required another form of reconstruction -- "building the culture of peace."
Tallawy said the economic impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict spreads beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. It has had a negative effect on the average growth of the entire region. Even Arab countries that have concluded peace treaties with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, "are also affected by whatever it's happening."
Egypt's tourism sector dropped sharply last year because many Westerners did not travel to the Middle East. Meanwhile tourism in Israel has also suffered, according to Israeli sources, and last Easter pilgrims stayed away from Holy Land sites because of the fighting.
"They (Westerners) stopped dealing and investing in the Middle East. So how can the Arab countries reach a reasonable percentage of annual growth and secure a prosperous life for their people?" Tallawy said.
Next week, Arab businessmen and members of Arab Chambers for Commerce, Industry and Agriculture are to meet under ESCWA's auspices in Beirut to familiarize them with the agreements of World Trade Organization, define their problems and formulate a unified position.
Tallawy said ESCWA's aim was to explain to its member countries the importance "to be more unified and form a big economic bloc."
Ironically, the repercussions of the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington organized by Saudi-born terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network could be a factor in strengthening Arab aspirations for an economic bloc. "After Sept. 11, the Arabs started to think that they cannot rely too much on 'friends outside' anymore."
Following Sept 11, key Arab countries have joined the U.S.-led alliance against international terrorism. President Bush and some European leaders have stressed that the fight is not against Arabs and Islam, but against Islamist-based terrorism. At the same time many Arabs have felt a backlash in the west as their communities and business activities have come under greater scrutiny.
Tallawy noted that a number of Arab students studying abroad, especially in the United States, preferred to return to the region and Arab money deposited abroad also made a comeback. Although no accurate or exact figure was available, Tallawy said some reports indicated that between $40 billion to $50 billion of Arab "individual" money deposited abroad "came back to the region."
Such money, she said, would be invested in the Arab countries for building schools or factories thus helping develop the region.
Tallawy, who recently visited several Arab countries, said the officials she met "are nervous and not comfortable with the magnitude of violence (against the Palestinians) and even the threat to attack Iraq."
ESCWA, which was formed in 1973, is made up of Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen. It is the smallest of U.N. five regional commissions.
"ESCWA is the only U.N. commission which has a region full of wars and armed conflicts and has to deal with not only urgent but also difficult and dangerous issues that affect the security of the region and probably the whole world," Tallawy concluded.