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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Tile by tile, Palestinians build Israeli settlements

High unemployment, low wages and the loss of traditional agrarian livelihoods compel Palestinians to make a difficult choice.

Losing land

Abu Eyad holds a handful of earth in front of a decades-old olive tree on his property near Beit Sourik.
(Rebecca Collard/GlobalPost)

Abu Eyad maneuvers his aging donkey down the rocky hillside of his farmland in the West Bank village of Beit Sourik.

“That’s it. There. We can’t go any further,” says Abu Eyad, pointing to the ridge just below. He slides off his donkey next to a decades-old olive tree.

This land has sustained his family generations, but now Abu Eyad is unable to access 25 acres of it — some blocked behind a tall fence and security road used by the Israeli army and the rest expropriated for the much wealthier Jewish settlement, Har Adar, visible on the nearby hilltop.

Since 2005, he’s required a permit from the Israeli army to enter and work his family’s fruit and olive trees, but he says it’s been almost a year since he was last granted permission. Even if he is allowed access to his fields in the coming harvest season, he says, the trees’ productivity will have been stunted as he was unable to tend them all year.

“That’s my land over there,” he says, moving his hand to indicate the terrain reaching through the valley to the neighboring peak where red-roofed homes of Har Adar curve neatly around the slopping hillside.

“We used to live from that land. They took it for the settlement and put it behind the wall,” says Abu Eyad, still looking to his trees on the other side of the valley. “As an old man like me it’s hard to find another job. I have no other options.”

Abu Eyad’s children emigrated to the US in search of work, but many young people from this eroded farming community have joined in building Israeli settlements.

Head of the local municipality, Muhammad Khaled Tari points to the route of the barrier weaving in and out of the West Bank and blocking many farmers from their land.
(Rebecca Collard/GlobalPost)

“There are big social problems because of the economic situation, people can’t get married,” says Muhummad Khaled Tari, head of the local municipality. He estimates the unemployment rate is 60 percent. “Poverty effects everyone and the psychological situation too. People feel like they are living in a big prison.”

“It’s often the case that people are on one side of the wall, and their land is on the other,” says Tari, referring to more than 400 miles of separation barrier that have been constructed by Israel to protect itself from attacks by Palestinian extremists. In 2005, Tari’s own land was also confiscated.

While some farmers are blocked from land, others are blocked from resources needed to cultivate it, says Hareuveni.

Hareuveni, who works with Palestinian farmers facing difficulties, says many lack water as settlements siphon off the majority of the resource. What Hareuveni calls a “vicious cycle” is essentially turning many Palestinians from small-scale farmers to laborers with few rights.

“They have to give up on their own agriculture because they don’t have any water and then they are going to work in agriculture in the settlements,” says Hareuveni. “And then the settlers are exploiting them.”

Palestine’s “pseudo-boom”

A 20-minute drive from Beit Sourik in Ramallah, things look very different. Upscale restaurants and lavish, newly built villas rise from rocky hillside and late-model SUVs roll on the freshly paved streets.

Here, things appear to be booming. Billions of dollars in international aid has bolstered the economy to the point that last year, the International Monetary Fund said the Palestinian economy is ready for statehood. But for Palestinian laborers this has meant very little.

According to a UN report released last year, while the economy of the Palestinian territories grew by 9.3 percent the year before, it didn’t relieve the massive unemployment, which remained around 30 percent. While unemployment is high, so is alleged corruption and nepotism and a handful of well-connected Palestinians have managed to get rich.

This, says Samir Awad, a professor of Political Science at the Birzeit University near Ramallah, is an indication of the “pseudo-boom” of the Palestinian economy.

“Yes, we realize right now the economy is emerging in the West Bank,” says Awad. But he cautions about this service economy without real industry — driven by the salary 150,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) employees and thousands of international aid workers.

Not only has it boosted prices in the Palestinian territories, making many workers’ salaries unlivable, but these jobs are fragile. If the PA doesn’t continue peace negotiations with Israel, both this aid as well as millions of dollars in taxes collected annually by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority will be withheld.

In other words, Palestinians on the whole are becoming less and less self-sufficient.

Palestinian manufacturing has declined about half-percent per year since 1993 as cheap imports flood the market, closing factories and destroying jobs.

Even the black-and-white keffiyeh scarf — a symbol of Palestinian nationalism — is almost entirely made in China. There is only one keffiyeh factory left in the Palestinian territories and its staff has shrunk from a dozen people to one.

Meanwhile, exporting Palestinian goods is difficult due to “prohibitive transaction costs at crossing points arising from long waiting times, and by damaged goods — especially fresh produce,” according the UN report.

In 2010, the PA passed a law forbidding Palestinian workers from working on settlements, as well as the sale of settlement-made products in the territories.

“The Palestine Liberation Organization is threatening those who work in Israeli communities, but it has not been successful in providing another workplace,” says Ha'Ivri, also pointing out that despite the international money pouring into Palestine, there are still few jobs for Palestinians.

Here, Ha'Ivri and Jabarin agree. Without an economy that can employ these people, the law will continue to be ineffective.

“Yes, they said they would punish the Palestinian laborers working in settlements, but the questions before them is, how to solve their problem?” asks Jabarin. “How to find them jobs in other places instead of working in the settlements? It’s a big, big challenge.”