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Israel hobbling West Bank economy, says Tony Blair

By Ben Lynfield in Jerusalem

Israel's delaying tactics over the launch of a new Palestinian mobile phone network could deal a substantial blow to the West Bank's economy, Tony Blair warned yesterday in his capacity as the international community's Middle East envoy.

Wataniya Mobile, based in Qatar, has been preparing for the launch of Palestine's second mobile telecoms company since 2007, with the second largest private investment in West Bank history, amounting to $700m.

But the company is frustrated by Israel's continuing refusal to release adequate frequencies and is threatening to close down its operation next month, seeking the return from the Palestinian Authority of its $140m licensing fee.

"This would be a setback for Palestinian economic progress," said Ruti Winterstein, a spokeswoman for Mr Blair's mission to Jerusalem. "Wataniya was meant to be a big boost creating jobs, money and competition. Mr Blair is pushing the Israelis to release the frequencies."

A spokesman for the Israeli ministry of telecommunications said Israel had allocated "more than enough" spectrum for Wataniya to launch.

Palestinian leaders argue that keeping Wataniya on hold undermines claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he wants to stimulate the Palestinian economy.

"This is a serious indication of a lack of real will to give Palestinians the ability to grow economically," said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, adding that the launch would create 2,500 jobs.

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