Theoretically, the 10-month freeze on building Israeli settlements in the West Bank was supposed to benefit the Palestinian cause.
But at the run-down cafes that make up a town square of sorts here in the Jalazon Refugee Camp, there’s a different story.
It’s just before noon, and the area is full of young men with nowhere to go.
Normally, about half of Jalazon’s able-bodied men are employed in construction in nearby Jewish settlements. But since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from President Barack Obama, announced the settlement building freeze in October, much of the work has disappeared.
In the long-term, the freeze is meant to help the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he wouldn’t agree to a resumption in peace talks without a building moratorium. But in the short-term, thousands of Palestinians who work in construction across the West Bank are feeling the pinch. They’re annoyed that no one seems to be paying attention to the impact on their lives of what they see as a pointless exercise.
“Work in the settlements has decreased dramatically in the last few months – it’s nothing like it was before. But our lives haven’t changed for the better and the leaders aren’t any closer to peace, so what’s the point?” says Walid Mustafa, a sort of self-appointed spokesman of the unemployed and father of seven who says he’s lucky to find work one day a month. “The settlement freeze is temporary anyway. The Israeli government is made up of settlers, and they will build again soon enough.”
Mr. Mustafa estimates that about 80 percent of camp residents who work in construction are now unemployed, while those still working are taking jobs for 50 shekels a day ($13) rather than the 150 shekels ($40) they used to make.
“The settlement freeze has only brought more poverty,” complains Abdel Aziz Othman.
“There’s no work anywhere,” agrees Issa Muhammed Mahmoud, a young man who spends most days sitting here, chatting and drinking tea for lack of something else to do. “I used to be able to go into Israel to work on sites there, but now they don’t give permits for that, and they’re bringing laborers from China to do it.”
Palestinian: I'm not judged for working in settlements
The fact that so many Palestinians work on building sites in the occupied West Bank is a sensitive matter, though most construction workers here will talk freely about it.
On the one hand, settlements are roundly considered by Palestinians to be an impediment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and clearly stand in the way of Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank. The 120 settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank since 1967 are considered illegal under international law, and Israel never annexed the territory.
But on the other hand, most Palestinians consider working in settlements to be a form of realpolitik applied to home economics. Palestinians who are skilled in masonry, construction, and other relevant trades have built the vast majority of homes in Israel’s controversial settlements to meet their daily needs.
“While the politicians dawdle away the months, we have families to feed,” says Fawzi Aqraba, a Palestinian from the Nablus area interviewed while finishing off a home in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Netafim. “Everyone at home in my village knows what I do, and I don’t think anyone judges it. We have to survive.”
New 'Dignity Fund' for Palestinians
Mr. Abbas rejected Netanyahu’s offer of a 10-month settlement freeze late last year, maintaining his position that the stop-work order should mean all building comes to a halt, and that it must include East Jerusalem. Netanyahu exempted approximately 3,000 buildings – projects already begun – from the freeze, and he has rejected calls to limit Israeli building anywhere in Jerusalem. George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy, was here last week in the hopes of forging a breakthrough, but none was apparent.
Palestinian officials hold that the Israeli offer is too limited in scope. “Washington, along with the international community, is pressuring the Palestinians without obliging Israel to stop settlement construction,” Nabil Shaath, a member of the Central Committee of Abbas’s Fatah party, said Tuesday in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
Ziad Toame, director general at the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy, says the Palestinian Authority (PA) recognizes that many Palestinian workers depend on jobs in the settlements. Mr. Toame’s ministry is in charge of enforcing a new PA campaign to get Palestinians to stop buying goods made in settlements. As part of the campaign, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad set up a $2 million “Dignity Fund” to compensate Palestinian merchants for their losses.
“We hope that the Dignity Fund will be expanded, if we get more donors, and then we might be able to compensate construction workers as well,” Toame says. “Or start training programs so they can do something else.”