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What does the future hold for the West Bank?

The first round of the current Middle East peace talks has just concluded, with Hilary Clinton insisting Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas can still “resolve all of the core issues within one year”. Her confidence in an agreement being reached between Israel and the leader of the Palestinians in the West Bank is not shared by all. The two sides appear to be in deadlock over the issue of new settlements. Israel is refusing to agree to an extension of its freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, which comes to an end on September 30th. And the Palestinian Foreign Minister has stated they will leave the negotiations “if one settlement is built after the end of the freeze”. Compromise proposals have been put forward, one involving a land swap of territory Israel captured from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East War. And the US is hoping one of these compromises will prove acceptable to both sides so the talks can resume.

The World Bank has just issued a report which finds that the Palestinian Authority is well-placed to establish an independent state, having made improvements in institution-building and delivery of public services. However, any Palestinian state would need to attract private investment for any significant growth in the economy. There is a small amount of growth in certain sectors, with newly registered businesses increasing by 38% between 2008 and 2009.  But until a ban on exports can be removed, it is unlikely the area will entice private sector investors and will continue to be reliant on international aid.

This is why the World Bank has just approved a 40 million dollar grant to support the Palestinian Authority, which faces a huge shortfall in its funds for 2010. And much more is still needed. The UN Agency for Palestinian refugees has exhorted Arab nations to provide further funds. Though Arab leaders are the most vocal in condemning Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, less than 5 per cent of the UN’s funds come from Arab nations. The largest contributors to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) are Western governments.

UNRWA provides food, medical, educational and other assistance. These supplies are vital for ordinary Palestinians. A recent study by Save the Children found that children living in the poorest parts of the West Bank face even more severe conditions than those in Gaza following the blockade. This is because many families in the West Bank find it harder to access international humanitarian assistance. The study found that restrictions on the use of land for agriculture have left thousands of children without enough food, estimating that nearly 80 per cent of communities lacked sufficient supplies, compared to just over 60 per cent in Gaza. This is having a major impact on health, with 44 per cent of children surveyed suffering from diarrhoea, the major killer of children under five. So for the poorest communities in the West Bank, the Middle East peace talks must seem a long way off finding a solution, as they focus on the daily struggle to feed their children.

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