In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs Are Double-Edged Sword


Jodi Rudoren – International New York Times

The personal conflict that thousands of Palestinians face working for Israeli companies in the occupied West Bank is particularly stark for Hassan Jalaita, who for 18 years has repaired Israeli Army jeeps at the Zarfati garage here.

Those are the very same jeeps that confront Mr. Jalaita at the checkpoint he crosses each morning. The same ones that sweep through villages where his friends and relatives live. But those jeeps also help pay his $1,471 monthly salary at Zarfati, more than triple the minimum wage in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, where a 19 percent unemployment rate and lack of labor laws make finding a decent job difficult.

“I feel like I’m not a human being — we are serving the occupation,” said Mr. Jalaita, 47, a father of five, two of them university students. “I am forced to work here because I have a house, I have a family. Tomorrow, if there is another place to work, if there is work in Palestine, I will do it.”

Israeli Industry and Palestinian Workers

Israeli industries operating in settlements that most of the world considers illegal and a prime obstacle to peace have become a focus of global attention in recent weeks, amid growing momentum for a boycott movement targeting Israeli businesses and institutions. The flash point was the actress Scarlett Johansson, who resigned her position with Oxfam, the antipoverty group, on Jan. 30 after Oxfam criticized her for signing on as a spokeswoman for SodaStream, the maker of home-carbonation systems whose largest factory is here in Mishor Adumim.

Underlying the dispute is a complicated economic and political landscape of factories and farms that at once entrench the Israeli occupation and help feed the Palestinian families that oppose it. About 25,000 Palestinians work legally for Israelis in the West Bank, many in construction, building the settlements they hope will soon be dismantled.

There are 15 other industrial zones like this one in territory Israel seized in the 1967 war. They have about 1,000 plants — sophisticated aluminum and food manufacturers as well as tiny textile and furniture workshops — that pump roughly $300 million into the Palestinian economy through salaries and, at the same time, take up vast acreage in what Palestinians see as their future state.

Palestinian officials and boycott advocates say that these settlement businesses exploit a vulnerable work force, and that Israel’s occupation is largely responsible for the moribund Palestinian economy that makes its own jobs appealing. Israeli leaders and factory owners, though, say the companies do more to help than hurt Palestinians, and provide rare opportunities for coexistence between the two peoples.

“I am not a settlement. I am an industrial area, an industrial area that gives hope for people,” said Yehuda Cohen, the chief executive of Lipski, a plastics plant in the Barkan Industrial Park, 15 miles east of Tel Aviv. “If there will be any kind of peace agreement, even if they decide this area should be part of the Palestinian country, we should not destroy the industrial areas. We should increase them.”

Diana Buttu, a lawyer who has been studying West Bank work conditions, and other boycott supporters acknowledged that the settlement industry provided important economic opportunities for Palestinians even as it challenged their national aspirations. The deeper problem, she said, was that the Palestinian minimum wage was $410 a month, compared with Israel’s $1,217, and most Palestinian workers lacked pensions, vacation days and disability insurance — factors she and others say are the fault of the Palestinian Authority as well as Israel.

“It’s imperative upon us, the Palestinians, and the international community as well, to make sure there is an alternative where people are working in decent, dignified, humane work,” Ms. Buttu said.

Israel opened its first industrial zone in occupied Palestinian territory shortly after the 1967 war, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Atarot. Mishor Adumim, created in 1976, now has 250 businesses that are a 20-minute drive from the center of Jerusalem. And Barkan was built in 1982, starting a decade-plus boom in which Israel provided financial enticements to move in as part of a push to strengthen the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where 540,000 Jews now live.

Mishor, Barkan and several other large parks are in so-called settlement blocks that Israeli leaders insist will become part of their state under any peace deal, but others are scattered deeper into the West Bank. Palestinians must be 18 to work in settlements; for jobs inside Israel, they must be 24, married and have at least one child.

The Palestinian Authority began boycotting settlement products in late 2009, but stopped short of punishing people who helped produce them. Mohammed Mustafa, the Palestinian deputy prime minister for economic affairs, called the industrial parks part of an exploitative pattern of “business colonization” that has blocked the authority from building a viable economy.

He blamed Israeli land confiscation and control of West Bank water for agriculture dropping to 6 percent from 15 percent of the economy over the past decade. Napco, a state-of-the-art aluminum factory in Nablus, he said, has been unable to anodize because Israel blocks the required materials as a security risk.

“If we have our land, if we have our resources, if we have independence, if we have control of our economy, then we will give them opportunities,” Mr. Mustafa said. “Yes, they are paying them more, but who wants to be working in a settlement? This is, in a way, even worse than not giving them a job.”

Mishor Adumim, created in 1976, now has 250 businesses that are a short drive from Jerusalem. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

Mishor Adumim, created in 1976, now has 250 businesses that are a short drive from Jerusalem. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times

While SodaStream and other large factories generally abide by a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court decision requiring Palestinians to receive the same salaries, benefits and conditions as Israelis, workers and their advocates say abuse is rife at smaller plants. WAC-Maan, a trade union center, has documented more than a dozen cases in which Palestinians were underpaid, lacked benefits, or were not provided proper bathrooms, rest areas and safety checks.

The Palestinian Authority cannot inspect these workplaces, and the Israeli Ministry of Economy has jurisdiction over only minimum-wage violations (a spokeswoman said it opened 10 investigations last year). Assaf Adiv, Maan’s national coordinator, said many workers feared that complaining could jeopardize their coveted work permits.

“It’s a no man’s land, a jungle law,” said Mr. Adiv, whose intervention last summer at Zarfati led to wage increases and other changes. “When you are under economic pressure, and you don’t have choices, the employers can force upon you almost anything.”

Long before Ms. Johansson’s seductive sipping of SodaStream in a Super Bowl ad, Lipski lost 17 percent of its business to the Palestinian Authority boycott. So Mr. Cohen, the chief executive, started exporting to Europe.

“These people are fighting against my right to work,” said Rashid Morra, 47, a father of five, who is the head of Lipski’s packing department. “You’re not going to get peace through boycotts. You’re not going to get peace through pressure. You get peace through working together.”

Ibrahim Odi, 53, of Salfit, a West Bank city, and Vadim Zaslovsky, 49, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who lives near the Tel Aviv airport, have spent the last year working directly across from each other. They make molds and trade jokes; Mr. Odi has taught Mr. Zaslovsky a few words in Arabic.

But they have never visited each other’s homes: Mr. Odi lacks the required permit to cross into Israel, and it is illegal for Israelis to enter Salfit.

“There are good people here, a good atmosphere, but after this building, there is a fence,” Mr. Zaslovsky explained. “We work here, we’re friends here. Not like normal friendship.”


Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Said Ghazali contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

A version of this article appears in print on February 11, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: In West Bank Settlements, Israeli Jobs Are Double-Edged Sword.

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