When Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat sought an economic adviser for the proposed first joint industrial project with Israel, he turned to a 63-year-old Libyan Jewish businessman who has broken bread with Col. Moammar Khadafy.
And the businessman, Rafello Fellah, is betting his reputation and a small fortune that the proposed Karni Industrial Free Trade Zone on the border of Israel and Gaza will help foster a new era of peace between the two entities.
“I think I’m the first, or one of the first official Jewish advisers to Arafat,” said Fellah, a ruddy-faced, black-haired native of Tripoli who has made Rome his home for the last 30 years.
Arafat last month named Fellah adviser to the Minister of Industry for business in the Karni Industrial Zone.
Fellah is seeking support from American’s Jewish and business community for Karni — a proposal to develop industrial parks on 722 acres at the Karni Crossing Point on the Israel-Palestinian border. The concept, part of the Oslo Accords, means to create jobs for Palestinians and greater export import opportunities for both peoples.
Fellah foresees a grassroots economic venture called The Mediterranean Center. He envisions it as “a shouk of joint ventures adopting the characteristics of the Middle East that would draw in from the Middle East and North Africa small- and medium-sized business enterprises.” He is trying to sell the concept to the World Bank, the U.S. State Department and the European Community.
Fellah believes peace will only come through economic opportunity and cooperation.
During his appointment last month, Fellah said Arafat confided in him that he “doesn’t have enough good Palestinian Zionists. They are still waiting, not investing.”
During a whirlwind trip last week, Fellah met with State Department officials in Washington and Jewish businessmen in New York to drum up interest in Karni.
Lobbying world leaders is not new to Fellah. He is president and founder of the Association of the Jews of Libya, and has been urging the Libyan government to provide compensation to the nearly 4,000 Libyan Jews who fled the country in 1969, leaving their property behind. Fellah says they are entitled to billions.
Fellah said Khadafy was warm and charismatic during their meeting in 1993, where Fellah spoke in an Arabic Libyan street dialect that Khadafy appreciated.
He said Khadafy respected the fact that Fellah never denounced him in public — even during the tense Reagan years and after the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
“He’s very deep, very knowledgeable,” Fellah said. “He’s a strong believer in his ideas.” However, no compensation agreement has been reached.
Fellah left Libya in 1967 after the Israeli Six-Day War. His father was killed in Tripoli during the pogrom of November 1945, when Fellah was 10. Yet, he said, “I’ve always been a believer in reconciliation.”
In Rome he became a contractor and real estate developer. He also started the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, seeking restitution for Jews forced to flee from Arab lands.
Fellah met Arafat in 1992 in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, introduced by the former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. From that meeting, Fellah began to work to find Italian investors for Gaza.
“Some people say I’m either crazy or a genius” to be a Jew investing money in the future of the Palestinians, he said.
Getting Karni off the ground is a major challenge, as it has been used as a political football. The World Bank, the Bank of Europe, Israel and America have pledged tens of millions to the project. As a free trade zone, however, there are sharp disagreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over security issues, and they must be worked out.
Israel in recent weeks has accused the PA of retreating from agreements about Karni and the development of an airport at Dahaniya pending a new initiative by the United States.
During his visit to the region several weeks ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair underlined the importance of launching the industrial zone to the peace process.
“Assisting Palestinian economic development would give the peace process a major boost,” he said.
Fellah believes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can play a key role in moving the project forward, but he must accept Arafat as the only logical partner and not wait for changes.
“He [Netanyahu] must understand the Arab mentality. He has the potential to become the next Ben-Gurion,” Fellah said.
In advocating peace talks with Arafat, Fellah quoted an old Oriental proverb: “It’s better to go with old shoes than to become acquainted with new feet.”
As for his native land, Fellah recently visited Tripoli. He met with the last Jewish Libyan woman left in the country — an 80-year-old named Zmerelda Lahnesh, who is being cared for by a local Palestinian family. She lives near the last standing synagogue in Libya, in front of the old king’s palace. It is being repaired by the government, even though there are no Jews left.
“For tourism,” he smiled.