Israeli Settlement Freeze Would End Palestinian Jobs

The Palestinian leadership says unless an Israeli settlement freeze, which expired last month is extended, they will walk out of peace talks. The uncertainty over what will happen next is affecting Palestinians in the West Bank. For many ordinary Palestinians, the settlements are their main source of income.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Renee Montagne spent about a month working every single day in Afghanistan, and then treated herself to one day off.

Renee, welcome back.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Oh, thanks, Steve. I just couldnt bear to be away longer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: On this Tuesday morning, here she is.

MONTAGNE: We're going to turn now to another troubled part of the world. From Afghanistan, we're going to move to the Middle East and talk about the newly revived peace talks that have gotten Palestinian and Israeli leaders locked in a frantic round of diplomacy.

The Palestinians say they will walk out of the negotiations unless there is a continued freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, and certainty over this key demand at the highest diplomatic level is also impacting the lives of ordinary Palestinians living in the West Bank.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has that story.

(Soundbite of praying)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's dusk in the village of Beit Fajjar near Hebron and the men have gathered in the mosque to pray.

(Soundbite of praying and singing)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They prostrate in the only part of the building that has not been scarred by fire. Palestinians here say settlers came in the early hours of Monday morning and set fire to the building, destroying several Korans, the Muslim Holy Book.

Mr. NAIM AHMED(ph): This one (unintelligible) seems like revenge or something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fifty-year-old Naim Ahmed points to Hebrew script above the mosque door. Vandals have scrawled a string of insults, including one describing this Muslim holy place as a toilet. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is similar to what is known here as price tag operations, where settlers target Palestinians in order to exact a so-called price tag when they are unhappy with an action the Israeli government has taken.

Arab residents like Naim Ahmed say settlers vandalize the mosque because they are worried that Israel's prime minister will reinstate the building moratorium in the settlements that was recently lifted.

Mr. NAIM AHMED: They are pushing the people to the corner to do something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Palestinian Authority is demanding that the Israelis extend the settlement freeze. It says it can't participate in peace talks while Palestinian land is being illegally annexed. But for many ordinary Palestinians, the settlements are their main source of income.

(Soundbite of music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the town of Sair, also near Hebron, men greet a grieving family with a traditional kiss on the cheek at a mourning tent that is full to bursting. Izzedine Kawazbeh is being hailed as a martyr here.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was, in fact, a Palestinian laborer who was looking for work when he was killed by Israeli border police over the weekend. He was trying to sneak over the separation barrier or wall that snakes in and around the West Bank. The Israeli police say he was shot after he tried to grab a policeman's gun. His brothers who were with him dispute that, saying he was shot at a distance while he was trying to run away.

There has been moderate economic improvement over the last year in the West Bank, but, says Sair's mayor Sheikh Suleiman, many people still dont have jobs.

Mayor SHEIKH SULAIMAN: I know that more than 70 percent of the people in this village who are able to work are unemployed(ph). There are no opportunities in this area for the people who are graduated from the universities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting inside the mourning tent, the dead man's father, Saleh Kawazbeh, says his son did what he had to do.

Mr. SALEH KAWAZBEH: (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) He needed to bring food for his family. He needed work badly. He risked his life in order to bring food and bread for his family. He was forced to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He wasn't alone. Izzadine was with 15 other people from this village the day he was killed, among them two of his brothers. Brother Hassan says Izzadine was in a desperate situation. The partial building freeze that had been in place in the settlements had made finding work difficult.

Mr. HASSAN KAWAZBEH: (Foreign language spoken) (Through translator) The martyr, my brother, has been out of work all the period of the freeze and then only the last two weeks he had a chance to work, and he has a lot of debt and he needed to work and that's why he risked his life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hassan says working in the settlements isn't easy at any time. He says most of them don't have a fixed job, they're essentially day laborers. When they find a job, they sleep rough, with a blanket on the construction site. His brother's death has not deterred him, Hassan says. He says he and his other brothers will try and sneak back to work in the settlements next week. They have to, he says. They now have the added economic burden of Izzadine's wife and five children to support.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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