Some Palestinian Workers Face Jail For Jobs

The Palestinian minister of economy tells NPR that in the next few months it will become illegal for Palestinians to work in Israel's West Bank settlements. Palestinians who flout the new rule will be jailed and or fined. It's the next phase of plan currently underway to boycott settlement products. But thousands of Palestinians earn their livelihood in settlements, many of them in construction.

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And for the past few months the Palestinian Authority has made it illegal for shops in the Palestinian territory to stock items produced in West Bank Jewish settlements. The program has had mixed success.

In an interview with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, the Palestinian economy minister says the policy will soon be taken a step further. Here's her report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's just before dawn. A Palestinian man illuminated by the staring headlights of a van kneels down to pray. Around him are dozens of other Palestinians waiting to be picked up for work in the Jewish settlements. They huddle in coats around a kiosk dispensing cups of thick bitter coffee.

Unidentified Man: Coffee?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most of them up for hours, traveling from their villages to the nearby Israeli checkpoint, where the waits are often long. Many have similar stories of struggling to find work opportunities within the Palestinian economy. Trace al-Ayan(ph) is 30 and works in the factory in the settlement of Mevo Horon.

Mr. TRACE AL AYAN (Factory Worker): (Through translator) I graduated from university. I found no work, so I went to work in the settlement. There was no other way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed Abu Sosia(ph) is 26 and also travels daily to Mevo Horon where he works as a construction worker.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABU SOSIA (Construction Worker): (Through translator) I think it is fine to work in settlements. What else can I do? I just want to bring food to the table for my children.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says in the Palestinian territories he has to fight to make 150 shekels a day - about $40. In the settlements, he makes about $110 a day.

Palestinian Economy Minister Hassan Abu-Libdeh says the Palestinian Authority is focusing its attention on settlements, because they are built on land Palestinians want for a future state. But he acknowledges it will take time to move Palestinians away from the wages the settlements bring them.

Mr. HASSAN ABU-LIBDEH (Economy Minister, Palestine): The number of Palestinians working in settlements is in the thousands. You know, this economy is a stagnated economy so it will not be easy for us to find jobs for many thousands of Palestinians overnight. But at least it should be known to every Palestinian, and as a certain date, no new Palestinian workers will be allowed to go into settlements to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu-Libdeh says that when the deadline passes Palestinians who work within the settlements will face jail time and/or fines.

Mr. ABU-LIBDEH: Why not? Settlements are illegally built on Palestinian soil.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back on the hard shoulder of the highway in the West Bank, 19-year-old Osama Mahmoud(ph) says he doubts the Palestinian government will be able to find him something that pays as well as settlement work.

Mr. OSAMA MAHMOUD (Construction Worker): (Through translator) I'm happy to stay on the Palestinian side and not work in the settlement. But will they provide me with an alternative? Will they provide me with a job? I need a job. I want to get married. I need to prepare for my future, and now the only way is to get a job inside Israel or the settlements.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he's badly treated by the settlers and feels humiliated working there, but he defends his right to do it.

Mr. MAHMOUD: (Through translator) The decision to build settlements is not connected to Arab workers. Arab workers are not the cause of the settlements expanding. If we dont do the work, others will.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like many of the Palestinian workers here, 28-year-old Imad Abdul Raoul(ph), who has a masters in mathematics but works in construction, says he despairs if ever seeing an independent Palestinian state.

Mr. IMAD ABDUL RAOUL (Construction Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm extremely upset when I think of the settlements, because settlements are an impediment to the establishment of an independent Palestine. But I dont think anyone is serious about us getting a state, he says. They are laughing at us, he says. The Israelis are laughing at us.

Mr. RAOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But still, he says, he will continue to work in the settlements for as long as he can.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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