50 years on, Palestinian economy is still reeling under Israel's grip

Israeli control has held back the Palestinian economy


Published: Sun 4 Jun 2017, 8:27 PM

Last updated: Sun 4 Jun 2017, 10:29 PM

Fuad Maraita's alarm goes off at 3.30am. His hometown of Salfit, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, still lies in darkness. He drinks a cup of strong Arabic coffee and a glass of milk in silence.
A few minutes later, he slings a cloth bag with his lunch over his shoulder, gets on a minibus and starts the grueling journey to his job laying tiles at a construction site near Tel Aviv. Maraita, 62, is one of tens of thou-sands of Palestinians who make the long trek to Israel on any given day. Fifty years after Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, this army of labourers is one of the most visible signs of the occupation. Israeli control has held back the Palestinian economy, making decent-paying jobs in the territories scarce. Stripped of choices, Palestinians work in Israel, where their average pay is the minimum wage - still more than double what they would earn at home. For Israel, they are a source of cheap labour, building homes, fixing cars and serving food. Laying tiles in Israel has become a Maraita family tradition, passed down from Maraita's late father to him, his four brothers, and one of his sons. The distance between Salfit and Tel Aviv is just 48km, but travel restrictions, including a ban on Palestinian cars entering Israel, keep him on the road for almost as much time each day as he spends working. Maraita believes occupation won't end any time soon.
"They (the Israelis) are not going any-where," he said. More than 100,000 Palestinians now work in Israel, and 24,000 in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. At peak times, a third of the West Bank's labour force worked in Israel, where the standard of living is 12.5 times higher than that of Palestinians back home - a gap that has widened since 1967.
This lopsided economic relationship will loom large if US President, Donald Trump, restarts long-stalled negotiations on setting up a Palestinian stat alongside Israel. Like its predecessors, this US administration believes strengthening the Palestinian economy would support such talks. But Israelis and Palestinians have different views of what this should look like. Palestinians say Israel must cut the shackles now, rather than linking economic change to an elusive peace deal. They say it's the only way to grow a sluggish economy held back by Israeli restrictions, including on Palestinian development in large parts of the West Bank where dozens of Jewish settlements are allowed to flourish. "Our economic problems can't wait," said Palestinian economist Mohammed Mustafa who discussed such demands with the Trump administration.
Israel has proposed improvements in the current system, such as setting up joint industrial zones and reducing bottlenecks at Israeli crossings that Palestinians say prevent them from trading competitively. It also told the Trump administration it's ready to open more of the West Bank to economic development. Palestinians say Israel has broken such promises before. Michael Oren, an Israeli government official who raised the ideas in Washing-ton, said fundamental change would have to wait for peace talks. Shortly after 5am, Maraita reaches a crossing through Israel's West Bank separation barrier. Hundreds of labourers make their way through a maze of rails, turnstiles and a metal detector, and place their bags on an airport-style X-ray conveyor belt.
They can't bring work tools for security reasons. They each place an ID card on a scanner outside a glass booth manned by an Israeli guard, and press their right index finger on another scanner to confirm their identity. It's a Thursday, turnout is relatively light and Maraita gets through the terminal in 10 minutes.
At the start of the work week, passing the crossing can take much longer, he said. In the beginning, there were no barriers. But with the outbreak of Palestinian unrest in the late 1980s, Israel began imposing security closures and a permit regime. After a more violent Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel built the barrier, which channels all Palestinians entering Israel through heavily fortified crossings to keep out attackers. Palestinians say the barrier is also a land grab because for long stretches it runs in the West Bank, not on the pre-1967 frontier, slicing off about 10 per cent of the land.
Palestinians from Gaza can no longer work in Israel; their entry was blocked after the Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. Some workers with sleepover permits spend the entire work week in Israel to cut down on the lengthy commute. For seven years, Maraita lived this way, but he has resumed the daily commute because he does not want to neglect his wife, Siham.
 After emerging from the crossing, Maraita passes workers kneeling on the ground for Muslim dawn prayers. He boards another bus, sitting behind his brother Ahed, 52, a fellow tiler. Ahed said some Israelis are pleasant to him, others openly racist. "You have to endure it," he says. "We are under occupation. We don't have many options." At about 6am, the bus drops off the workers at a corner coffee shop in scruffy Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv. 
Maraita buys a coffee and chats with other customers as he waits for his employer. At 6.15am, Maraita's contractor pulls up outside the coffee shop. By the time Maraita gets to his shift at 7am, he will have traveled three hours. Over the years, Palestinians increasingly felt they were getting a bad deal. Their economy contracted or stagnated as a result of conflict-related closures, and they became more dependent on foreign aid.
The closures limited the access of Palestinian goods and workers to Israel, while Israel continued to export to Palestinian areas. In the West Bank, youth unemployment has reached 40 per cent, and the overall figure for all ages stands at 18 per cent. Palestinians say that if left to their own devices, they could create jobs and wean themselves off hundreds of mil-lions of dollars a year in foreign aid.
The World Bank says the Palestinian economy could grow by a third if Palestinians could access resources in so-called Area C, or 60 per cent of the West Bank, where Israel retains sole control. Saeb Bamya, a Palestinian economist, said he believes Israel is stifling the Palestinian economy to weaken political demands. Gaza, home to two million Palestinians, is even worse off than the West Bank. The border blockade has prevented trade and largely wiped out manufacturing and farming for export. Un-employment has reached 42 per cent. Among the young, it's 60 per cent. In the long run, Israelis and Palestinans would gain economically from a two-state solution. In the meantime, Israeli gains from the occupation, such as access to cheap labour and a captive Palestinian market are being out-weighed by lost opportunity, such as lack of open access to the Arab world and high defence costs, some economists say.
It is 3.30pm. Maraita has changed into clean clothes and sits on a bench near his work site. The boss arrives in a pick-up truck. Maraita and several co-workers surround the vehicle to collect their week's pay.
After more than two hours of travel - typically a brief ride with the contractor to a busy intersection, two bus trips and a shared taxi - he's back in Salfit at 5.40pm. On work nights, he's in bed by 8.30pm.
On some evenings, one or more of his six children visit. Maraita hopes his 23 grandchildren will have a better life through education, although unemployment is high among college graduates. For now, he needs to keep earning money to support his extended family.

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