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WEST BANK: President Abbas slams Israel, courts investors at Bethlehem conference

June 2, 2010 |  9:17 am

As the uproar over Israel’s attack Monday on a convoy of ships carrying aid supplies to the Gaza Strip was still boiling over, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday opened an investment conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, telling participants that it was safe to invest here.

Abbas could not ignore the effect of the incident on the proceedings of his conference, attended by a number of foreign officials, including U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin.

First, in line with his earlier declaration of a three-day mourning period for the nine Turkish nationals Israeli soldiers had killed on the Freedom Flotilla, Abbas canceled all festivities scheduled for the conference and restricted speeches to only his.

In the 40-minute speech, Abbas focused on the flotilla raid, describing it as “state terrorism.” He called for an U.N.-sponsored international inquiry, protection for the Palestinian people in the Israeli-occupied territories and urged the Arab world to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Abbas named the meeting the “freedom conference,” in honor of the flotilla, and drew a standing ovation and long applause from the over 1,500 participants when he thanked Turkey for its role in the aid flotilla.

“This is not the first time where Arab and Islamic blood mixes with Palestinian blood in the history of this conflict,” he said. “We have decided to call this conference the freedom conference because you also had to struggle to get here and we know the obstacles they [Israel] had put in your way to prevent you from coming here. The Freedom Flotilla has come from the West to break the blockade. But this freedom conference is here to break the economic blockade on the Palestinian people.”

Abbas said that just as what happened with the flotilla, “our people are also subjected to state terrorism.”

“How long is this going to continue?” he said. “When is this suffering and occupation going to end? When is the bloodshed going to end and peace prevail?”

He said, “We are waiting for justice from the international community. We have been waiting for a long time, and we have the patience to wait some more. We will not despair.”

Abbas tried to reassure conference participants and businesspeople that in spite of the latest political turmoil, the presence of Israeli soldiers at the entrance of every Palestinian city in the West Bank and their daily incursions into these cities and the division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will pay off yet.

The two important components for a safe investment – security and law – are well entrenched in the Palestinian areas, Abbas said. “Our GDP grew by 8% last year,” he said. “If there weren’t security, there will not be growth. We started with security and you can see that there is security and the situation is normal.”

Abbas said he will travel to Washington for a meeting with President Obama on June 9 to discuss how to make peace attainable in this volatile region.

But until he does that, the fallout from the flotilla raid will continue to shake any foundation for the fragile state Palestinians are hoping to attain in the near future.

-- Maher Abukhater in Bethlehem.