50 years on, Israel keeps tight grip on Palestinian economy
SALFIT, West Bank (AP) — Fuad Maraita’s alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. 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 thousands 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 laborers 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 labor, 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 30 miles (48 kilometers), 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 anywhere,” he said.
This is part of a series of stories marking the 50 years since Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967.
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 labor 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 President Donald Trump restarts long-stalled negotiations on setting up a Palestinian stat alongside Israel. Like its predecessors, this U.S. 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 senior Palestinian economist Mohammed Mustafa who discussed such demands with the Trump administration.
Israel has proposed improvements of 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 Washington, said fundamental change would have to wait for peace talks.
In the meantime, “more Palestinians working in Israel is a good thing,” he said. “Palestinians become invested in stability. If there is stability, there is less terror. If there is less terror, this gives us, the diplomats, more space to negotiate.”
Shortly after 5 a.m., Maraita reaches a crossing through Israel’s West Bank separation barrier. Hundreds of laborers 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 percent of the land.
Palestinians from Gaza can no longer work in Israel; their entry was blocked after the Islamic militant Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.
Some workers with coveted 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 6 a.m., 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, including two Israeli Jews, as he waits for his employer.
One of the regulars, Ariel Schneider, a small-time contractor, believes Palestinians don’t need a state.
“We need to make sure they (Palestinians) have work and everything will be fine,” he said.
Maraita, standing next to Schneider, remains silent.
At 6:15 a.m., Maraita’s contractor pulls up outside the coffee shop. By the time Maraita gets to his shift at 7 a.m., 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 percent, and the overall figure for all ages stands at 18 percent.
Palestinians say that if left to their own devices, they could create jobs and wean themselves off hundreds of millions 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 percent 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.
“They know it (a flourishing economy) will strengthen our position in negotiations” on a two-state deal, said Bamya, a lead researcher in the Aix Group, an Israeli-Palestinian economic think tank.
Hardliners in Israel’s Cabinet push for an annexation of Area C, and the government has accelerated settlement construction there, as well as in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Oren said the fate of Area C has to be decided in negotiations. He said Palestinians need to make their economy more competitive through technological advances and putting more women to work.
Gaza, home to 2 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. Unemployment has reached 42 percent. Among the young, it’s 60 percent.
In the long run, Israelis and Palestinians would gain economically from a two-state solution. A Rand Corp. study found that Israel would stand to gain $123 billion over 10 years of peace, and Palestinians $50 billion.
In the meantime, Israeli gains from the occupation, such as access to cheap labor and a captive Palestinian market are being outweighed by lost opportunity, such as lack of open access to the Arab world and high defense costs, some economists say.
Yet in Israel, economic arguments are often overshadowed by emotional attachments to the West Bank, said Israeli economist Arie Arnon of the Aix Group.
“People can say, we are ready to suffer a little bit in economics, and not give up what is sacred to us,” he said of a prevalent view in Israel.
It is 3:30 p.m. 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. Israeli contractors pay on time, unlike Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank, said Maraita, who earns about four times the West Bank wage for a skilled laborer.
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 5:40 p.m. On work nights, he’s in bed by 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.
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.
“In the current situation, we have to work in Israel because we have to take care of our homes, our children,” he said. “If you work in the West Bank, it’s not an income. We cannot live (on that). We cannot do anything.”