Palestinian unemployment sapping territories

Citing violence, Israel has backed off on plan to admit 11,000 Palestinian workers.

Mohammed Abu Kbeita bears no signs of physical harm from the confrontation with Israel. But he is in deep trouble.

Mr. Abu Kbeita is among more than 120,000 Palestinian breadwinners displaced from jobs in Israel since the beginning of the intifada more than seven months ago. That was when Israel, citing security reasons, shut its borders to Palestinian day laborers.

"I used to have work all the time and money that I could spend," says Abu Kbeita, who was a construction worker for 10 years. "Now there is nothing. I'm like a car without fuel."

Grappling with the sharp escalation in economic misery poses a challenge to the already embattled Palestinian Authority, which has no safety net to offer the new have-nots. And Palestinians predict the spread of poverty will bring more people into the circle of violence against Israel.

In tightly knit Palestinian society, with a population of 3 million in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are very few households that have not been hurt by the displacement of the workers. Their salaries were more than double those earned by laborers within the territories.

Abu Kbeita, who has two wives and 12 children, has been only occasionally employed in low-paying jobs for the past half year and has used up his savings. Two months ago, he sold his car to raise cash.

The downtown Ramallah store of Baker Anis, a Palestinian who grew up in Los Angeles, has been hit hard by the economic demise of people like Abu Kbeita.

"There is no demand," Mr. Anis says. "When a worker cannot work in Israel, he won't spend money here." His store specializes in plastic bathroom and kitchen items, but cash-strapped customers are forgoing those in favor of essentials. "The only people around here who have money now are those with relatives outside the country," Anis says.

Within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, economic life has been choked by Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints. Travel strictures, the collapse of tourism and investment, and shrinking consumption all mean that Palestinian employers are having to lay off their workers on a large scale.

"The local private sector is collapsing," says Ghania Malhees, head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute.

Palestinian officials say the displacement of workers and severe travel restrictions amount to a "collective punishment."

"I think the Israeli government is trying to trade food for security, and the formula is not working," says Mohammed Shtayyeh, head of the Palestinian Authority's Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. "Even with a total closure and siege, the intifada has not abated."

Citing Palestinian attacks over the past week, Moshe Kariz, a spokesman for military administrators, indicated the Israeli government was backing off from an earlier decision to allow 11,000 more laborers to return to work. About 10,000 are currently allowed. Mr. Kariz says that in fact only 1,500 to 2,000 more were now being given permits.

Weighing on the minds of Israeli decisionmakers, says Shlomo Dror, the defense ministry spokesman, is a February attack by Gaza Strip resident Mohammed Abu Olba, a bus driver who had just been given security clearance to enter Israel. He killed seven soldiers and a civilian and wounded 26 others near Tel Aviv by running them over. A father of five who had worked in Israel for five previous years, Mr. Abu Olba did not fit the "terrorist profile" of the authorities.

"The problem today is to trust the Palestinians coming to Israel. Today it's a very big risk," says Mr. Dror, who believes Olba had been egged on by the anti-Israeli "incitement" in the Palestinian Authority-controlled media.

If the economic crisis continues, the choices of the newly unemployed could become extremely painful, says Lisa Taraki, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University near here.

"Any activity that keeps families going would be undertaken," she says. "More children would be pulled out of school. The kids will be made to work in peddling or as mechanics in garages."

Azmi Shueibi, a Palestinian legislator from Ramallah, predicts that some of the unemployed workers will join the intifada. "Workers who are closed out of work, who are stuck in their villages without any opportunities, will be drawn into intifada activities. Until now, the intifada has been centered in the cities, but if Israeli pressure makes villagers pay the price, why wouldn't they share in it?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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