Blair unveils projects to aid Palestinian economy

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JERUSALEM, Nov 19 (Reuters) West Asia envoy Tony Blair gave details today of four international projects aimed at bolstering the Palestinian economy as part of efforts to end the conflict with Israel.

Flanked by the Palestinian prime minister and Israeli defence minister, the former British leader said the projects, including one funded by the World Bank to improve sewerage in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, were integral to peace efforts.

''It's not a substitute in any way for the politics, for the work that will go on in Annapolis,'' Blair said of next week's West Asia peace conference. ''It will not by itself transform the future.

''But it is a strong beginning for what is a critical part of this process because without hope of prosperity and a rise in living standards and giving people an economic stake in the future ... then the politics will never succeed.'' Work could now begin, Blair told a news conference, on creating industrial and commercial zones in the West Bank cities of Jericho and Hebron, largely funded by Japan and Turkey respectively, and improving tourist access and facilities at Bethlehem, the Christian pilgrimage site near Jerusalem.

The project to shore up collapsing sewage infrastructure in Gaza has been approved by Israel as a humanitarian project, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said, despite Israel's declaration that the coastal enclave is an ''enemy entity'' since Hamas Islamists seized control there in June.

Blair said some sewage would run in new pipes from January and by June 200,000 of Gaza's 1.5 million people would benefit.

At least four people died in March when a sewage pond burst its banks in the north of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has barred many imports to Gaza, whose borders it controls, including that of industrial piping which is used to make improvised rockets that are fired daily into Israel.

Blair represents the Quartet of powers engaged in West Asia peacemaking -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. He said further projects could be approved at a donors conference in Paris in a month.

Projects under discussion include efforts to improve housing, education and recreational resources.

''We need international help,'' said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has made economic improvement a priority since being named by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Barak said Israel was considering removing a further 24 roadblocks and a checkpoint in the West Bank this week. He said a similar number were already gone. Palestinians say some 500 Israeli military roadblocks hamper trade and investment. Barak said his purpose remained to prevent attacks on Israel.


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