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Palestinian crisis set to deepen without more aid: World Bank

The World Bank

RAMALLAH: The aid-dependent Palestinian economy faces a deepening crisis unless foreign support grows and Israel eases restrictions on its trade, the World Bank said Thursday.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is relying on foreign aid to cover a 2012 budget deficit projected to reach $1.1 billion, but most donor countries have not fulfilled their pledges.

The World Bank said in a report released ahead of a meeting on Palestinian aid in Brussels next week that the Palestinian Authority has received just over half of the funds it needs.

Mariam Sherman, the World Bank’s director for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, called on donor countries to meet their pledges to help stabilize the Palestinian economy in the short term.

The report said a slowdown in growth in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians have limited self-autonomy, “can be attributed to falling donor support combined with the uncertainty caused by the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal crisis, as well as lack of significant new easing of Israeli restrictions.”

To help fill the gap, premier Salam Fayyad last month approved a hike in income tax rates to increase revenues, but the World Bank said the economy was still likely to worsen in 2012.

Fayyad, appointed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, is credited with revitalizing the West Bank economy. But the World Bank forecast GDP growth in the territory would drop to 5 percent in 2012 from 5.8 percent last year.

Per capita GDP in the Palestinian Territories, with a combined population of just over 4 million, is $1,500 a year.

“There is a lot of energy and resourcefulness in the Palestinian private sector which is the longer-term path out of crisis mode toward sustainable economic growth,” Sherman said.

The report pointed to growth potential in private sector areas including construction, agriculture, housing and tourism.

Instead, economic expansion in recent years has been driven mainly by donor aid, the report added, “which remains stifled by Israeli restrictions on access to natural resources and markets.”

Much of the aid comes from the United States, the European Union and Arab nations, and allows the Palestinian Authorities to pay the salaries of public workers.

Adding to its problems, the United States, which is trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, cut off funding last year when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas defied calls from U.S. President Barack Obama and made a unilateral bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

Palestinian officials say more than $150 million of U.S. aid is frozen.

In the Gaza Strip, a smaller territory controlled by Hamas Islamists who defeated Abbas’ forces in a civil war in 2007, the economy expanded in 2011 due to a construction boom after an increased flow of aid and the easing of Israeli restrictions.

But the growth in Gaza may not be sustainable, the World Bank said. The Gazan economy is still rebounding from a very low base, with the average Gazan remaining “worse off than s/he was in the late nineties,” the report said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 16, 2012, on page 6.

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