East Jerusalem comes alive early. The 6 A.M. sun hits the high stone walls of the Old City and casts a long shadow before the Damascus Gate. Radios from taxi cabs and passing police vehicles squawk commands to the cab drivers, already chain-smoking, and the 18-year-old soldiers behind the wheels of their jeeps. A cab driver yells, “Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv” over and over, while the smell of falafel balls frying in hot oil and Turkish coffee waft through the crisp morning air.
I am headed to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian trade unionists. Before leaving, I check the papers. It’s just like home, the news smacks of the same stupid sensational journalism rampant in the U.S.A. For the second consecutive day, the English language edition of liberal Israeli Haaretz is focused on a missing Jewish cab driver, Eliyahu Gorey, suspected of being apprehended by Palestinian militants. Most other news has been crowded out.
The ride to Ramallah is bumpy. I arrive at the Qalandia checkpoint outside the city within 30 minutes. Checkpoints are an object lesson in the political realities of Israeli occupation. They are in essence microcosmic metaphors of Israel’s larger project. From above, Qalandia would take the shape of a dumbbell. At each end of the checkpoint, massive amounts of activity: cabs, trucks carrying goods, people trying to get to work or to see their families. In the middle, a long narrow stream of people passing nearly single file under the gaze of young Israeli soldiers in mirrored shades, automatic weapons at the ready. The function of these encounters is ritual harassment and intimidation. The checkpoints are psychological weapons aimed at the will of the Palestinian people.
Mohammed Aruri works with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (P.G.F.T.U.), like the nine other staff members of this organization, he has been jailed numerous times since the 1970s. Rarely charged with any specific offense, his seven trips to lockdown have all been administrative detention. He’s viewed as a threat to the established order, that is, to the occupation. Far from being a hard and fiery militant, Mohammed is gentle and gracious. He says, “You are welcome” nearly 20 times within the first five minutes of our meeting.
Over coffee and cigarettes, my lesson on the struggle of Palestinian workers begins. For the 120,000 Palestinian laborers who worked in Israel prior to the Al-Aqsa Intifada, living under occupation got precipitously worse when they all lost their jobs thanks to Israeli imposed border closures and intense restrictions on Palestinian travel to Israel. According to Mohammed, 60 percent of Palestinians are now unemployed and 70 percent are living below the poverty line. Two million Palestinians are living on less than two dollars per day.
Here again, the 162 Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.) checkpoints throughout the occupied territories are essential: restricted movement is killing the Palestinian economy. The West Bank, known for its olive oil and citrus fruits, and Gaza, where European markets bought flour, have virtually shut down because goods cannot pass out of the territories or are held up at checkpoints for so long that they perish.
Likewise, the closures make it almost impossible for raw materials to be shipped into Palestine, which has crippled the territory’s industrial sector. So, in addition to the unemployed blocked from their old jobs in Israel, more and more workers who had jobs in Palestine are losing their livelihoods.
In Ramallah, for example, the Silvana Sweets Company, a well-known pastry producer, was forced to close when goods could no longer be exported and supplies no longer imported; 250 workers were laid off.
“Everything is under Israeli control. Even the air we breathe,” says Husein Faqahaa, director of educational programs at the P.G.F.T.U., as he grasps his neck as if choking. Husein was born in the small village of Sinjil, which lies between Nablus and Ramallah. It takes him three hours to get home because of the three checkpoints he needs to cross. Sinjil is less than 20 kilometers from Ramallah.
Outside investment in Palestine has also taken a dive. Prior to the Intifada, Ramallah was experiencing a construction boom. Palestinians living abroad were investing money in real estate, tourism, and agriculture. That flow of capital has stopped.
“This is an economic war against the Palestinian people not against Hamas or Islamic Jihad,” Mohammad says. For him the struggle for Palestinian workers’ rights and the effort to end Israeli occupation is inseparable. “Workers need comprehensive peace, from the bottom to the top.”
If the economic outlook is grim, the work of Mohammed and the P.G.F.T.U. offers some hope. In many ways, worker organizations are establishing a new political culture of democracy and accountability in Palestine. They demand elections in the workplace to determine the leadership of workers associations, elections for representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council, and for the leader of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). Only with these means, says Mohammed, can Palestinians build a movement to end Israeli occupation, counter the rise of the Islamic parties, and oust the corrupt machinery of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
The P.G.F.T.U. also works with the unemployed. Displaced workers can receive benefits from the union’s “emergency program” such as small cash grants of up to 500 shekels (about $150). The union itself never touches this money. They solicit donations from parties in surrounding Arab counties and submit a list of benefit recipients to the Palestinian Authority’s Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry deposits money in local banks where beneficiaries collect their grant. About 225,000 Palestinians have received this aid since the beginning of the Intifada.
The union also provides food packages. Over 200,000 food packages have been given out, and often Palestinians can receive food donations from other international N.G.O.’s operating within Palestine. But Mohammed is quick to point out the limitations of charity. “We don’t need food, we need justice for the Palestinian people.”
Lastly, the P.G.F.T.U. provides health insurance. A recipient’s entire family is entitled to coverage. Over 300,000 Palestinians now have health insurance because of the union’s program.
Workplace safety posters line the walls of the intake room where the unemployed apply for benefits. The design of the posters is similar to those airplane brochures that explain how to unfasten your safety belt and jump onto that huge blowup slide if the plane crashes into the ocean. In this context of mass unemployment, the safety posters seem almost as useless.
Benefit seekers line up in the intake room on the opposite side of two long desks that serve as a makeshift counter. Nearby a T.V. set plays Tom and Jerry cartoons. The cat and mouse aim large canons at each other and pull the triggers simultaneously. Both emerge scorched and blackened from a cloud of smoke.
Imam Sameeh is a tall man waiting for benefits. For many years he worked at a car company but the firm was forced to close when Israel imposed travel restrictions. Five workers lost their jobs. For two years Imam has been unemployed. He’s receiving 500 shekels from the union.
“I owe 3,000 shekels to friends who loaned me money and I owe 6,000 shekels to the water and electric companies. I’m afraid the company will cut the water,” explains Imam. “My sons want to go to summer camp,” he continues. “It’s free. I can’t send them though because I don’t have money to pay for their transportation.” Finally, he adds, “Two weeks ago my father died. I couldn’t pay for his service. I’m very sad.” The story is bad, but Imam is rather matter of fact. After all, his situation is hardly unique.
Elsewhere in Ramallah I meet with Saleh Raafat, Secretary-General of the Fida Party, a secular, social democratic organization established in 1990. Fida might strike the American observer as an anomaly, but this sort of reasonable political outlook is much more prevalent in Palestine than one might expect.
“We want an independent Palestinian state and a democratic society,” says Saleh, who is also Fida’s representative to the Executive Council of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. “The Islamic movement wants an Islamic system and Fatah is right wing. They don’t want to change. Between these two are us social democrats. We struggle to unite left parties and civil society organizations.”
Heading back to East Jerusalem, I am informed that Israel has imposed a curfew. Being out on the street could mean detention, or getting shot, or nothing at all. Mohammed decides he’ll defy the curfew and see me to the Qalandia checkpoint.
Before we get to the bottleneck, we hit trouble. The Israeli soldiers have stopped Palestinian drivers and confiscated their keys at a major intersection; the stranded vehicles act as roadblocks. This is the logic of guerrilla warfare turned on its head, death by a thousand cuts, but now perpetrated by the military of a powerful state against a stateless civilian population.
The cab drivers are not deterred. Reversing and U-turning away from the soldiers, they jag off to find alternative routes through winding and rutted roads. Having dropped off Mohammed, I arrive back in East Jerusalem approaching along the hills above to avoid the I.D.F. The cabby says the curfew is so the Palestinian Authority can move Arafat to Gaza.
Later I check the Haaretz website. It seems the I.D.F. and P.A. shut down the streets of Ramallah, a city of 90,000, as part of a cooperative sweep in search of the missing cab driver Eliyahu Gorey. I keep surfing the site, looking for news on the economic situation in Palestine, facts that might flesh out the larger context of Imam’s story and the reality of two million Palestinians living in enforced poverty. All I find are new angles on one missing Israeli.
ContributorRobert S. Eshelman
ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.