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Why some Palestinians choose to work in Israeli settlements

It's because the occupation makes finding other jobs really, really hard.

Johnny Harris/Vox

PSAGOT, West Bank — When President Donald Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this month, Palestinian leaders called for demonstrations and general strikes. Jamil Jahaleen understood the anger, but he had a family of eight to support. Jahaleen needed the money, so he chose to go to work.

But it’s where he chose to go to work that’s surprising: inside one of the West Bank settlements, which Palestinian leaders generally want to see dismantled as part of any future peace deal with Israel.

Jahaleen, 36, understood his friends’ decision to strike, but he didn’t feel he could do the same. “The situation is hard and I need to eat,” said Jahaleen, who has worked as a handyman at Psagot Winery, a popular West Bank tourist stop about 20 minutes away from Jerusalem, for nearly a decade. “My kids are more important than anything.”

Jahaleen earns 5,000 Israeli shekels per month, or about $1,400 US — substantially more than he’d earn working in a Palestinian-owned business elsewhere in the West Bank, where unemployment is high and salaries are low. At one point, he had to hire a lawyer when Israeli authorities revoked his coveted work permit, he said. But Jahaleen said he is happy with his work, and that his employers just want to live in peace. “Not all settlers are the same,” he added.

Jahaleen’s need to put pocketbook concerns above politics reflects a little-known aspect of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Most of the world considers Israel’s West Bank settlements — which span the gamut from hilltop communities of a few dozen people to quasi-cities with populations of more than 25,000 — to be illegal. Palestinian leaders have long demanded that they (or at least the majority) be torn down as part of an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

But for many average Palestinians under occupation, the reality is much more complicated: They may scorn the settlements, but they also depend on them for the money they need to support their families.

Jahaleen is among the 36,000 Palestinian men, women, and sometimes children who work in Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank — land occupied by Israel’s military but also claimed by Palestinians. Palestinian unemployment and underemployment is high, particularly for young people. Palestinians can be exploited by unscrupulous Israeli employers but can make up to three times more working in factories and construction in Israeli settlements, farms, and industrial zones than in jobs in the Palestinian territories. There, the minimum wage is about 1,700 shekels a month, or about $485 US, according to Yoav Tamir of the labor organization WAC-MAAN.

So while Trump’s Jerusalem announcement sparked protests throughout the Middle East (though not to the extent that was expected), many Palestinians, including those most directly impacted by the US policy shift, reacted with more of a weary, pained sigh than with public outrage. They expected the announcement to have little impact on their daily reality and struggles.

One of those struggles is the basic question of how to put food on the table in a West Bank worn down by unemployment, underemployment, and economic malaise. Some Palestinians like Jahaleen have decided that the best option, for now, is working inside an Israeli settlement.

Settlements are a core part of the bloody and decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Love or hate them, many Jewish settlements, like other institutions tied to Israel’s occupation, are now a deeply entrenched part of life in the West Bank. Israelis began moving to the region after it was conquered, along with East Jerusalem and Gaza, in 1967.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law because they purportedly violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids transferring of populations to occupied territories. Palestinians want the West Bank (along with East Jerusalem and Gaza) to be part of a future independent state. They say the settlements are built on stolen Palestinian lands, which Israel denies.

More broadly, Israel argues that the settlements are legal and that the West Bank — which the government refers to by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria — is Jewish land that can and should be settled for religious, political, and security reasons.

There are now around 500,000 settlers in 130 settlements that range from gated communities and small cities to lone caravans on top of hilltops. Despite the intense international scrutiny, two-thirds of Israelis don’t consider the land occupied today and don’t think of West Bank settlements as anything particularly separate. Many see them as just another, more affordable suburb of Jerusalem where family or friends can live. When settlements do make news in Israel, it’s generally because of a Palestinian attack targeting their residents.

About one-third of Jewish settlers are considered “economic settlers,” meaning they moved there for cheaper, government-subsidized housing and other amenities. Others have chosen to settle the land for more ideologically and religious nationalist reasons. More extreme settlers seek out confrontations and sometimes clash with Palestinians and even Israeli soldiers.

The Obama administration openly criticized the expansion of settlements in its final weeks in office, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying they could kill off any last chance at a two-state solution to the conflict and endanger Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. The Obama White House also infuriated Jerusalem by abstaining on a controversial United Nations Security Council resolution saying Israel’s settlement policy “constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

The Trump White House has taken a very different tack. Last February, the administration issued a statement saying that Israeli settlements were not an impediment to peace — a huge break with decades of US policy. The US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, donated money to pro-settlement causes before taking his administration job, as has Trump son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Trump’s policies have emboldened Israel’s extreme right-wing nationalist government and the country’s settler leaders, while simultaneously angering Palestinian leaders, who say the US can no longer serve as a neutral arbiter between the two sides (something average Palestinians have been saying for some time). In mid-December, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flatly declared that Palestinians “will no longer accept that [the US] has a role in the political process.”

But for both Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank itself, regional politics and rhetoric are often colored by the economic ups and downs of everyday life.

Palestinians and Israeli settlers have closer ties than you’d think

Jewish Israelis living in settlements often point to good relations with Palestinian workers in their communities as a sign that coexistence, or at least economic coexistence, is possible. They say that daily interactions and friendships with Palestinians working in their homes or communities belie a biased Western media portrayal of all settlers as violent and extreme, as well as their own societies’ fears of Palestinians as hell-bent on attacking Israelis.

Yaakov Berg, an Israeli settler who owns the winery where Jahaleen works, says he employs 20 Palestinians at a gas station he owns in a West Bank settlement and will soon be hiring more to build another winery. Berg believes that working side by side allows both settlers and Palestinians to see each other as human beings, not stereotypes.

“We get to know each other,” he told me. "It's the only solution — people to people."

Palestinian labor leader Hatem Abu Ziadeh sees the situation differently. He works as a mechanic in a garage in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, not too far from his hometown of Jericho. Abu Ziadeh, 45, wishes that the Palestinian economy and workers were strong enough that they wouldn't have to rely on work in Israeli factories and communities built on land he considers Palestinian. Israelis know the Palestinian economy is weak, he said, and so “they exploit the Palestinian worker.”

Many Palestinians like Abu Ziadeh work in one of several Israeli industrial zones in large settlement blocs close to the unofficial border with Israel (areas Israel intends to keep in any final peace agreement). Palestinians need Israeli military–issued permits to work in one of the around 1,000 factories within these zones, which benefit from tax breaks and other government subsidies — Jahaleen requires this type of permit for his work, too. The permits include security background checks and can be suddenly revoked or suspended, such as when Israel imposes a closure on the West Bank during Jewish holidays as a security measure or if a family member is accused of a crime.

Other Palestinians, many of whom don’t have permits, work as laborers, constructing roads and buildings for settlements. Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of creating a “two-tiered system” in which Israeli companies profit from cheap Palestinian labor and land and don’t provide overtime, pension, or work and accident insurance. Israel says it is offering legal and much-needed Palestinian employment.

The Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government led by Abbas that nominally runs the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has technically banned Palestinians from working in settlements — though it has no way to actually prevent them from doing so. Abbas is deeply unpopular, and has been criticized for not pushing hard enough against Israel and for not providing other outlets and opportunities.

Abu Ziadeh takes these dilemmas as they come. He currently has a good working relationship with his Israeli employer, who runs a garage — but that’s after a decade-long battle to create the first-ever union for Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements. At one point, his employer fired him for his unionizing efforts and falsely accused him of terrorism. He was only exonerated and reinstated after a lengthy court battle.

Still, he says that his way of resisting the occupation is by working to organize Palestinians to fight for, and take back, their rights, one step at a time.

Jahaleen is no fan of the Israeli settlements in theory, but for the moment he knows the wages he earns in the winery support his family. More broadly, many Israeli settlers depend on Palestinians for the relatively cheap labor they provide. It’s a delicate balance that leaves one side with more power than the other — but at least for now, it also seems like one that many on both sides have learned to accept.

“My kids are more important than Abu Mazen,” a nickname for Abbas, “and Trump,” Jahaleen said.

Miriam Berger is a freelance journalist with a focus on people and politics in the Middle East. She is currently based in Jerusalem.

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