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Wed 2 Jul 2008 06:22 PM

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Agro project set to boost Palestinian economy

Japan and Middle East leaders agree project to bring thousands of jobs to West Bank.

Japan and Middle Eastern leaders agreed Wednesday on a project to bring thousands of badly needed jobs to the West Bank, voicing hope it would lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority said after talks in Tokyo that they aimed to start building a Japanese-funded agro-industrial park in the region by early next year.

The project's "success would provide local people with new jobs, promote the economic development of Palestine and provide hope for the future", Japan's Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said.

"It is necessary to create a Corridor for Peace that enables a free transfer of people and goods across borders," he added.

The four sides said in a joint statement that the initiative "will contribute to creating a future viable Palestinian state, living in co-existence and co-prosperity with Israel".

Saying there was an "urgent need" to improve the lives of ordinary Palestinians, the four said the project would create jobs and "build trust among all the parties".

Japan is spearheading the project as part of its drive to increase its clout in the Middle East and broaden its global influence. Japan timed the meeting before it hosts next week's summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers.

The talks came amid new violence in the region with a Palestinian man killing at least three people when he rammed a bulldozer into a bus and cars in central Jerusalem.

The Japanese project, first proposed in 2006, would export fruit and vegetables via Jordan to the Gulf and provide jobs for up to 6,000 Palestinians, mostly around the West Bank town of Jericho, according to Japanese officials.

"The vision is bold, the task is daunting but I am confident that Japan has the experience and the goodwill to bring this project to its successful conclusion," said Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah.

Israeli Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, who also deals with security issues, said he hoped the project would get underway "with no delay".

"Let us use all of our efforts to realise as soon as possible the success of this project," Ezra told a ceremony.

A feasibility study undertaken by Japan is to be completed in November and the four countries called for cooperation from the Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian private sectors.

But officials and experts point to the complexities of the project as Israel controls security, water resources and Jewish settlements in the region.

Japan pressed Israel to freeze the construction of settlements and move ahead with a "road map" for peace as outlined by a November summit in Annapolis, near Washington.

"It is extremely important that both sides execute measures agreed to in the road map including a halt to settlement construction and violence," Komura said.

"It is also important to alleviate the painful situation of Palestinians living in Gaza," Komura said.

In response, the Israeli minister said that his country "will continue to abide by the road map and continue to pursue negotiations with the Palestinian side", according to a statement from Japan.

Israeli authorities last month approved a plan to build 40,000 new homes in Jerusalem over the next 10 years, including in the annexed Arab eastern sector of the city.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Salah Bashir told reporters that the Japanese project "demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between prosperity and ensuring a lasting peace of all of our region".

Japan has portrayed itself as a neutral broker in the Middle East due to its lack of historical baggage. But it has long maintained friendly ties with Arab states and Iran on which the resource-poor Asian power depends heavily for oil and gas.