West Bank construction 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
It's a startling fact: The workers building settlements in the West Bank have generally been Palestinians — even though Palestinians widely consider these communities a threat to their dream of an independent state.
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Now comes a twist: Earlier this year, the Palestinian Authority government passed a law forbidding work in the settlements — and its determination to stamp out the phenomenon is being sorely tested in recent weeks, as a settlement building boomlet has emerged in the West Bank.
With the Palestinian economy facing double-digit unemployment, the issue has sparked some soul-searching and debate.
"It is immoral for us — totally immoral for us — to work in settlements," said Palestinian Authority Economics Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh, an enthusiastic supporter of the law which passed in April and bans Palestinians from such work.
Abu Libdeh said the ban — which imposes fines of up to $14,000 and jail time of up to five years for violators — will eventually be enforced. But for now, he said, the government is holding off while it searches for ways to help workers switch jobs.
About 21,000 Palestinians currently work in settlements, either in construction, agriculture or industry. Their ability to return to the settlements in recent years — after a period of violence from 2000-2005 which saw the two peoples separated almost completely — has aided the mini-revival of the Palestinian economy.
But it is also helping the settlements prosper and expand.
Some 300,000 Israelis live in more than 120 settlements across the West
Bank — almost a threefold increase over two decades of peace
In the settlement of Ariel this week, Palestinian laborers readily
admitted they were torn between politics and paychecks.
Dozens of them mixed cement, laid bricks and arranged red tiles on the
roofs of 48 new apartments at a dusty construction site in what is
already a town boasting 19,000 residents.
Most work eight-hour shifts five days a week and earn between $35 and
$55 per day — which is somewhat less than what Israeli workers would
cost, but more than what is generally available to Palestinians in the
West Bank. There, similar jobs usually pay $25 per day in the
Palestinian cities and $15 in rural areas.
Sitting inside a yellow tractor, Abed Abdel-Karim, 41, said he'd been
working in settlements for 15 years. He said they threaten the future
Palestinian state but said he has no other way to earn a living.
He acknowledged it was a problem, "but it's not my job to fix it ... I'm
married and have kids. I don't want to be a millionaire. I just want to
pay my bills."
Palestinian Authority Labor Minister Ahmed Majdalani said that one way
the government is trying to combat the phenomenon is the creation of an
investment fund aimed at supporting large-scale construction projects
and other Palestinian employers.
The fund, announced in May, is hoping to tap international donors, but
so far the only moneys have come from the Palestinian Authority itself —
$5 million, or a tenth of the $50 million target.
Even if the fund takes off, Palestinian companies will likely continue
to pay less than Israeli ones. But Majdalani said he's counting on
national pride and fear of punishment to entice workers away from
"We don't consider the difference in pay a justification for anyone to
go work in the settlements — not nationalistically, politically or
morally," he said.
A key part of the possible solution for Palestinian workers is the planned
city of Rawabi
, which will be built from the ground up for 40,000
residents; but this massive project remains on hold because Israel has
not given builders permission for a key access road.
At the construction site in Ariel, 32-year-old Abdel-Jaber Bouzia was
doubtful any of these schemes would work. He did not fear the legal ban
on working in the settlements and could hardly imagine their removal.
"Maybe after a million years," he said, shoveling sand into a rumbling
cement mixer. "Or on Judgment Day."
What do the settlers say?
Settler spokeswoman Aliza Herbst noted that some settlements themselves
ban Arab labor, sometimes due to security concerns, but it remains
attractively cheap and abundant.
She said she supports the Palestinian government's efforts because she
would prefer employers were freed of the financial temptation and hired
"I hope they succeed," she said.