Palestinians Defy Leaders' Coronavirus Crisis Ban on Work in Settlements

Laborers earn relatively higher incomes in Israel, where some 100,000 Palestinians work, and in West Bank settlements

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Palestinian Laborers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramat Givat Zeev, March 19, 2020
Palestinian Laborers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramat Givat Zeev, March 19, 2020Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Palestinians on Thursday defied their government's call to cease work in Israeli settlements over coronavirus concerns, saying bringing money home to their families came first.

More than 500 cases of infection have been confirmed in Israel, and nearly 50 in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule.

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Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh asked the some 25,000 Palestinians who work in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank - areas Israel captured in a 1967 war - to stay home from Thursday as part of efforts to reduce transmission.

But in the West Bank settlement of Ramat Givat Ze'ev, Palestinian day laborers dismissed the PA's order and shrugged off virus fears.

"You have to adapt, put yourself in a bit of danger so you can provide food for your children," said Omar Hamad, a construction supervisor from Ramallah. "We have rent, we have expenses, we have lots of things."

The wrangling sheds a light on how workers in the interwoven Israeli and Palestinian economies might push back on coronavirus restrictions that could threaten their jobs and income.

Palestinian laborers earn relatively higher incomes in Israel, where some 100,000 work, and in the settlements than in Palestinian cities.

Their salaries made up 14 percent of the Palestinians' $18 billion gross national income in 2018, according to Raja Khalidi, director general of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

Khalidi was sceptical the PA would enforce the settlement work ban, which would be hard to implement without cooperation from Israel.

"The (PA) cannot pay the price of cutting off the livelihoods" of Palestinians working in settlements, he said, especially with unemployment in Palestinian cities in the West Bank hovering around 15 percent.

"They would be unemployed and have to fend for themselves in an otherwise hostile and depressed economic environment," Khalidi said.

For its part, Israel has made no effort to ban the entry of Palestinians with work permits. But the laborers face new restrictions as both the PA and Israel try to limit peoples' movements during the health crisis.

The Palestinian Authority has imposed curfews in Bethlehem and other West Bank cities under its control. It has given workers with jobs in Israel until March 22 to find housing there, after which the PA intends to ban cross-border travel.

Israeli authorities said that due to the health crisis Palestinians with work permits, who typically return home to the West Bank daily, will be allowed to stay in Israel for up to two months, depending on the nature of their work.

Employers will be responsible for finding housing for the Palestinian workers, COGAT, Israel's military liaison to the Palestinians, said.

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