The ruins of Jericho, reputedly the world's oldest city
On the edge of Jericho, reputedly the world's oldest city, workmen are busily laying the foundations for something which hopefully will represent a new and better future for the troubled region.
Long concrete rows glint in a watery sunshine as the occasional tourist bus visits nearby historical sites such as Herod's Palace and the few remaining crumbling bricks of the famed walls of Jericho which encircled the city as long as 10,000 years ago.
Solar photovoltaic panels will soon be installed on the concrete platforms and by the end of 2012 the first units of an envisaged agro-industrial park should be operational, processing and canning the tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, water melons, citrus, herbs, oranges and other fruits and vegetables from the rich soil and farms of the Jordan Valley.
The agro-industrial park is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of a project promoted by Japan since 2006 known as the Corridor of Peace and Prosperity.
It is a concept designed not only to help raise the living standards of local communities but also to promote collaboration and friendlier ties between the peoples and administrations who share these biblical but troubled lands--Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority--and to eventually help create a viable Palestinian state.
"Only recently it seemed like an empty desert here," says JICA's Palestine Representative Eiji Kubo, surveying what has now become a busy building site. As the foundations of the agro-industrial park are established, other industries are already moving to the area, attracted by the creation of a modern infrastructure of roads, water, waste treatment, land reclamation and power.
Steel, plastics and soft drinks factories are moving here and Eiji Kubo said it will have the additional benefit of creating more jobs in the Palestinian territory and surrounding area.
Hideaki Yamamoto, Japan's Deputy Representative to the Palestine National Authority, a diplomat with many years of experience in the region and a key originator of the Corridor of Peace concept said it had "taken a long time in the initial phase" but "now we are at a moment of truth. We must accelerate our efforts."
The agro-industrial park takes shape
If the Corridor of Peace is the most visible project, Japan and JICA have long been involved in other regional programs which support both the ‘corridor concept’ and the wider yearnings of people throughout the Middle East region and highlighted so dramatically by the Arab Spring for better jobs, education and health.
Japan financed the construction of a new King Hussein bridge and regional access roads between the Palestinian West Bank and Jordan. A new Sheikh Hussein Bridge and border facilities between Israel and Jordan will help facilitate the movement of goods and people and the export of agricultural products from the Jordan Valley.
Since 2007 Japanese and other experts have been helping to improve agricultural techniques, marketing and finance for local farmers and revived the region's famed melon production. They will continue to work until 2014 to help small and medium sized farmers to respond to larger market opportunities envisaged through such projects as the agro industrial park.
Other experts are helping the official Palestinian Industrial Estates and Free Zones Authority, which is creating three industrial zones, in areas such as marketing the region's economic and industrial potential.
As many as 3,000 municipal staff have received advanced training and the Japanese government allocated US$11 million to build access roads, schools, clinics and social centers for women.
Jericho and surrounding historical sites already attract an estimated 700,000 visitors annually, and Japanese expert Keiichiro Takadera has helped promote the vast tourism potential of the region.
To meet concerns that a region studded with military checkpoints and barriers in the Palestinian territories restricting free movement would adversely impact on maternal health, JICA in 2005 helped develop and distribute a handbook on maternal and child health to help the estimated 66,000 women giving birth each year in the West Bank and three experts are currently helping to train both nurses and doctors in advanced maternal procedures.