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Commentary By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Opening Trade Could Ease West Bank Tensions

The bustling streets of Ramallah in the West Bank are a shopper’s dream. On Thursday, walking down Main Street, I passed stalls of fruits, vegetables and nuts, stores filled with clothes, jewelry and electronics, and even a Stars and Bucks selling coffee.

Men stood on the corner near Al-Manara Circle changing wads of Israeli shekels to American dollars and Jordanian dinars for commercial transactions and personal savings.

Just one obstacle -- few goods can be sold to Israel, even though Israel has substantial exports to the Palestinian Territories.

In the midst of the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the trade regulations between the two areas are part of a set of bizarre rules that challenge the imagination.

Here’s one example: A young Arab, let’s call him Abdullah, is not allowed to live in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank outside Jerusalem because he is a Palestinian. However, his brother Mohammed can settle there because he is an Israeli Arab.

And another: Joshua, a Jewish immigrant to Israel and a citizen, cannot legally travel to Ramallah and the territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, but his family members visiting from abroad can go because they are not Israeli citizens.

And one more: When in Jerusalem, Joshua is allowed at certain times of day to visit the Temple Mount, a site revered by Muslims and Jews, provided that he doesn’t pray.

These absurdities are the unfortunate result of the conflict that has spanned decades and has no end in sight. As a reminder, here in Ramallah, Palestinian guards in red berets loiter, holding Israeli machine guns.

Dr. Adel Yahya, director of the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, explained over Arab coffee that he is not permitted to sell his traditional crafts -- pottery, olive wood carvings, and textiles -- within Israel. Instead, he exports them to Jordan, America and Europe.

Similarly, produce can be sold locally or exported to Jordan or Europe, but not to Israel.

But the reasons why trade is limited are complex, and Israelis are not solely to blame, according to Daniel Doron, director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress. Some vegetables grown in the West Bank might not satisfy Israeli health standards, he told me in a telephone conversation.

More important, when the Palestinian Authority was set up, it agreed to keep the large Israeli monopolies that control food production and distribution in exchange for a share of the monopolies’ profits. These profits were then used to fund security services for Yasser Arafat, former president of the Palestinian National Authority, who died in 2004.

Whoever is to blame, this situation hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. Tent encampments inside Jerusalem protest high prices of everything from housing to cottage cheese, driving away university graduates. Ten miles away in Ramallah, prices are low even by American standards.

If Israelis knew how low the prices were in Ramallah, many would want to travel there to go shopping. But they are not permitted, partly because it is too expensive for Israeli security services to ensure their safety. Allowing exports from the West Bank could be a first step to economic cooperation.

I received a friendly reception in Ramallah because I was a potential customer. I was treated not as an evil American, but as a source of American dollars.

With trade, you start out selling tomatoes, then move on to olive oil. Soon people develop economic relationships, then social relationships.

Breaking down trade barriers and food monopolies might be a small, practical step toward peace in the Middle East. It’s clear that millions would benefit from lower prices and commercial interaction. Why not start in 2012?

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner