The farmers of Irtah, a village near the West Bank market town of Tulkarem, can still see their land. But they havenâ€™t had access to it for more than a year because the trenches, walls and barbed wire of Israelâ€™s “security fence” lie between their hilltop homes and the fields. Now the Israeli army is threatening officially to confiscate the 500 dunams they are forbidden to access (1). The fate of this land is almost certainly determined: an industrial estate will be built astride the fence, funded jointly by the Israeli authorities and Palestinian entrepreneurs. The farmers, left without land, will have no choice but to work in the new factories for a minimum wage set at barely a third of Israelâ€™s official minimum.
Tulkarem is not alone. While the fence is a long way from being finished (200km out of a planned 700km have been built), Israelâ€™s minister for industry, trade and employment, Ehud Olmert, is pressing for a chain of industrial estates to be set up along its length. Some sections of the army, especially those engaged in patrolling the Palestinian territories, consider this project as a continuation of the fence.
“Youâ€™ll see, it will be very nice,” said the commander of Tulkaremâ€™s military headquarters as he inspected a gate in the wall, which encroaches on Palestinian territory by almost 3km. The Middle East division manager at the industry and trade ministry, Gabi Bar, said: “We will set up an industrial park here and it will be just fine. The Palestinians really need sites like this.”
If the security situation were not so delicate, these estates might be built in the Nablus area: as it is, lining them up along the wall is a less risky option. The idea is not new. After the 1993 Oslo accords Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed a plan to create nine industrial estates along the Green Line (2) in the West Bank and Gaza. From Jenin in the north to Rafah in the south, the estates were to provide jobs for some 100,000 Palestinians. With the start of the intifada, the plans had to be shelved. Days into the uprising, an angry mob of Palestinians burnt down the embryonic Buds of Peace estate near Tulkarem. Another estate, near the dam at Erez on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, has been frequently attacked by the Palestinian resistance.
However the estates are still functioning and 4,500 Palestinians have jobs on the Erez estate while 500 work at Tulkaremâ€™s Buds of Peace. But until now no one had considered building a new industrial area along the Green Line. The idea has been revived because of the wall. This barrier has exacerbated the already chronic problem of Palestinian unemployment (45% in the West Bank and 60% in Gaza); 120,000 Palestinians who worked legally or not in Israel before 2000 can no longer go there. And tens of thousands of peasants are now separated from their own lands by the wall. Yet Israeli businesses feel confident about estates near the wall because of the high level of security.
The brutal irony is that the wall is key to the success of joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial estates. Those beside the wall meet the most important requirements of each side: security for Israeli businessmen and employment for Palestinian workers. Olmert said as much: “The industrial estates resolve both the problem of Palestinian unemployment and that of the high cost of labour for Israeli businesses, which are currently relocating to the Far East, and they do it without risk, since the Palestinians wonâ€™t be crossing the Green Line” (3).
In December 2003 Olmert even set out a plan that recalled Shimon Peresâ€™s near-forgotten vision of a new Middle East. At a Jerusalem conference attended by the director of international relations at the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy, Saeb Bamya, Olmert declared: “I will not allow politics to interfere in the development of economic ties with our Palestinian neighbours.” He had apparently forgotten that his government had broken off all official relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) in mid-2001 (4).
In January 2004 Olmert was a guest at a conference organised by the renowned Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, who is behind a programme for the construction of 100 industrial estates in the region. Wertheimer said: “It is better to occupy people with work rather than let them turn to terrorism.” Yet Israeli businesses are motivated neither by philanthropy nor by the promise of peace. “Why do you think the Erez industrial estate is still attractive for 200 factories that have stayed put despite all the terrorist attacks?” asked Gabi Bar. “The most important motive is the low wages paid to the workers: around 1,500 shekels ($332) as against 4,500 shekels ($995), which is the minimum wage in Israel. What is more, the employers donâ€™t have to abide by Israeli labour laws.”
There is also a plan, Bar said, to create Palestinian enclaves on Israeli territory, again exempt from Israelâ€™s labour laws. But Israelâ€™s leading trades union, the Histradut, is opposing any kind of apartheid between Israeli and Palestinian workers.
The Israelis may well have another reason to invest along the wall. The largest factory on the Tulkarem industrial estate, Geshuri, specialises in pesticides and other chemical products. Until 1985 it was located near the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, but local residents complained of its horrible smells and it was moved to the West Bank. The PA demanded unsuccessfully that Geshuri be moved away from Tulkarem. The factoryâ€™s managing director, Raanan Geshuri, has thrown its doors open to anyone who wants to check that it is safe. But if it failed to be accepted in Netanya, it is unlikely to convince the residents of Tulkarem.
Many Israeli industrialists may now follow Geshuri by moving their most polluting factories into areas where Israelâ€™s strict environmental laws will not apply. Despite the Geshuri experience, Bar insists that Palestinians will benefit from these estates: “And a Palestinian earns more in Erez than in Gaza.” He is right. According to a report in March by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, around 40% of Palestinians suffer from “dietary insecurity” – they go hungry – while 60% live below a poverty line that international organisations put at $2.10 a day. So Palestinians should be glad to be able to work and feed their families. But under what conditions?
Abdel-Malek Jaber is head of the Palestinian Estate Development Company (Piedco), a key player in the construction of the industrial estates. Jaber, who claims to be close to the Palestinian industry minister, Maher al-Masri, is determined to find the money to build the first two estates, which are seen as vital to reviving Israelâ€™s economy and the only way to save Palestineâ€™s economy. The economies are inextricably linked: in 2001, a year after the start of the intifada, 86% of imports to the Palestinian territories came from Israel, and 64% of Palestinian exports went to Israel. The PA is Israelâ€™s third most important trading partner after the European Union and the United States.
“For the unemployment rate in Palestine to stay at its current level, which is already very high, the Palestinian economy would have to grow at a rate of 7% or 8% a year, which is impossible,” says Jaber. “So we need to think of some further measure. Thatâ€™s why I want to build industrial estates on the border. Israel is a developed country and part of the globalised economy. We cannot afford not to make use of that. At present weâ€™re heading for hell at a hundred miles an hour. I want to give people back some hope.”
Jaberâ€™s first two estates will be built at Jalama, to the north of Jenin, just opposite Irtah. Jaber says he has “purchased private land from Palestinians” and has identified other sites near Bethlehem. He plans to build two more estates, one at Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, and another at Tarkumia, near Hebron in the West Bank. Each will provide at least 15,000 jobs, and the whole project might create as many as 100,000. The potential workforce of the West Bank is estimated at 560,000.
There seems to have been some interest from investors already. “I wouldnâ€™t spend $40m if I didnâ€™t have a single client,” says Jaber, who hopes that the first estate will be in operation within 18 months. By his calculations, production costs will be 70% less than they would be in Israel, thanks to low salaries and low rent. Jaber is doing all he can to make Israelis feel that the estates are safe. “Iâ€™m not naive,” he says. “For these estates to work, we will have to sign special security agreements.”
Gabi Bar is more explicit about what form these agreements will take. “The basic condition is that security in the estates must be provided solely by Israelis. Because if a factory is located in an area under our control, we can then say that that factory is located in Israel. Its goods wonâ€™t have to be subjected to as many checks as those coming, say, from a factory in Nablus.”
Control of security is one of the main differences between the new plan and those drawn up before the intifada. Back then, according to the director of the industry ministry under Ehud Barak, Professor Reuven Horesh, the Palestinians were to have total responsibility for the estates: this meant a major transfer of technology from Israel to Palestine, but no more than that. Now the Israelis will have full responsibility for security although land and management remain in Palestinian hands.
“Saying things like that doesnâ€™t help us,” says Jaber. There is a hint of anger in his voice; he is well aware of Palestinian sensitivities. Palestinians are especially sensitive to the idea of having Israel unilaterally impose its will on them. So the key question is: are the industrial estates true collabor ations between the two sides or simply Israeli actions for the benefit of Israelis? Recent signs suggest that the second scenario is more likely. The Israeli interior minister used an Arab newspaper to tell farmers in villages to the northeast of Jenin on 29 January that some 6,000 dunams of their land were to be confiscated within a fortnight, “to tidy up the regional organisation of the Shahak industrial estate”. That is, further Palestinian land was being taken from its owners to enlarge this estate, located on the Israeli side of the wall but part of the territory occupied in 1967. Gabi Bar claims not to be aware of these confiscation orders. But he admits that the enlargement of this industrial estate is of great advantage to Israel and says the Israelis have made preliminary contact with the Palestin ians concerned to achieve this end.
The farmers of two villages, Silat al-Harithia and Tura al-Sharqia, swear that no one has spoken to them. Palestinian officials told them they knew nothing about it. Things are going the same way around Tulkarem. Faiz al-Tanib, a member of the farmersâ€™ union, says that peasants in Irtah and Farun had a letter from the military authorities announcing that the 500 dunams on the Israeli side of the wall were to be confiscated by the army. This land used to feed around 50 families. Since the wall was built, they havenâ€™t been able to use it.
The Tulkarem industrial estate will be built on these 500 dunams, at the foot of Irtahâ€™s hill. Army officials have told the peasants as much. And according to al-Tanib, Palestinian businessmen are proposing to buy or rent some of the land. The name of Piedco, Jaberâ€™s company, has been mentioned. “How is the construction of an industrial estate going to help us?” asks al-Tanib in exasperation. “You deprive 50 families of their land just so that 50 others can work in factories. Thereâ€™s no point.”
The industrial estates look more like another unilateral step for Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians. Gabi Bar denies this, insisting that if any estate were to be built without Palestinian collaboration, it would be attacked immediately. But he adds that agreement could be reached at a local level, without involving the PA. Jaber also thinks the construction of the estates can go ahead without a political agreement between Israel and the PA. Of course he hopes that agreement is reached soon: the PA changed its law on foreign investment, removing all limits from those wishing to invest in the estates.
The head of a new leftwing movement, the Palestinian National Initiative, Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, is much more sceptical. “These projects didnâ€™t work after the Oslo accords and they wonâ€™t work now. Itâ€™s just an exercise in hiding the hor rible truth. These Palestinian businessmen arenâ€™t concerned about the unemployment problems of their countrymen; theyâ€™re just looking after their own interests. This plan only makes sense from an Israeli point of view. Itâ€™s a reinforcement of the apartheid in which Palestinians can be no more than a nation of slaves. But it wonâ€™t work.”
* Meron Rapoport is a journalist in Jerusalem
(1) A dunam is 1/10 of a hectare. (2) The name given to the armistice line between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 war. (3) Maâ€™ariv, Tel Aviv, 22 September 2003. (4) Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, 16 December 2003. Translated by Gulliver Cragg
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