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Palestinians to bypass Israel with seaport of their own

The Sept. 4 'Wye II' accord allows for seaport construction to restartby Oct. 1.

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TVs, ovens, refrigerators, washing machines - Awny Faris & Sons has it all. As one of the biggest wholesalers in the teeming Gaza Strip, the family has an ever-growing population to supply with household appliances.

But business is dropping. The $6 to $8 million they earned annually a few years ago fell to $5 million last year and will be around $3 million this year. Palestinian disposable income is shrinking, while the cost of importing goods remains sky high. A buyer interested in purchasing one of the new washers in the corner, company manager Mohammed Faris points out, must pay the 100 percent tax on imports of such machines through Israel - making a $500 appliance cost well over $1,000.

These and many other problems could soon be alleviated with the opening of the first functioning seaport in Gaza since Roman times.

The "Wye II" accord sealed on Sept. 4 allows for construction of the port to restart by Oct. 1 and is scheduled to be operational in 18 months. The construction of the port - a $100 million project primarily funded and designed by Holland and France - will generate employment and spur local industry to the tune of 4,000 jobs, Palestinian officials say.

But all that is contingent on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators coming to an agreement over a protocol for operating the port.

So for now, Mr. Faris must sometimes wait weeks while his incoming merchandise is put through a security check at the closest Israeli port in Ashqelon, and pay for storage of the goods until they are released. Exporters tell similar tales of trying to ship their products out to the world at large. Perishables like flowers and produce - potentially the Palestinians' strongest domestic exports - sometimes shrivel while waiting to be cleared.

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