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The Middle East @ Work

Exporters struggle in West Bank

Sam Eaton Mar 6, 2008
The Middle East @ Work

Exporters struggle in West Bank

Sam Eaton Mar 6, 2008


TESS VIGELAND: Today the United Nation’s top human rights body today passed a resolution condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza, saying they’ve created a humanitarian crisis. But it’s also an economic crisis. And one that extends beyond just Gaza. Yesterday we brought you a story about staying in business on the Israeli side of the border. Today, the other side. In the West Bank, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian trade and travel have created what the World Bank calls “a shattered economic space.” Marketplace’s Sam Eaton traveled there to see how businesses are coping.

SAM EATON: If you’re Palestinian and you’re in the export business chances are you’re products don’t travel very far. Since the beginning of the most recent Palestinian uprising in 2000 Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods both within the West Bank and across the border.

One of those borders is near Jenin in the northern agricultural region of the West Bank. Here Palestinian middlemen sell produce by the truckload to Israeli wholesalers on the other side.

Imad Zakarneh says Israel is the only country he’s allowed to sell to, forcing him to take whatever price the Israeli buyers offer and then pray they’ll keep their word.

Imad Zakarneh: Here’s an example of one trader who owes us about $300,000. This is a check for $14,000 that has bounced and been returned to us unpaid. We’ve been contacting him repeatedly but he doesn’t return our calls.

Jenin exporters report that more than eight million dollars in Israeli checks have bounced so far. And Zakarneh says there’s little they could do about it.

Zakarneh: There’s nothing in our law that allows us to get this money. We were informed that this company has gone out of business, bankrupt. And according to Israeli law we can get about two dollars a month out of them.

Eaton: Why keep going given these conditions?

Zakarneh: We don’t have any alternatives. I am an accountant by profession. I graduated from university in 1984 but I can’t find a job. Even when there are jobs they don’t pay enough. So we keep farming and selling in the local market and trying to the Israelis.

After more than forty years of Israeli occupation, the West Bank’s economy remains largely undeveloped. Roughly 90 percent of Palestinian exports are sold to Israel. Shipping delays and Israeli security fees make these labor intensive, low-value goods practically worthless in the global marketplace. Businesses that rely on imported goods don’t fare any better.

Sam Bahour: The Israelis have made it impossible for us to be able to do proper business

Sam Bahour is a real estate developer based in Ramallah.

Sam Bahour: Whatever you want to do in Palestine. Whatever you want to do, the Israeli closure is part of your decision making. You can not get a screw, a nail, a hammer, into Palestine if the Israelis don’t want you to bring it in.

Despite the challenges Bahour recently completed a ten million dollar shopping center in Ramallah. He says his crews were installing the final panels on the glass facade as Israeli F-sixteens bombed the city.

Sam Bahour: We definitely don’t build for today. I don’t build under the assumption that the occupation will exist forever. We are putting in place the seeds that will grow post conflict.

But planting those financial seeds can be difficult. Like the flow of goods, the flow of Palestinian people in the West Bank is also tightly controlled.

Nasser Abufarha: We are at Aynab checkpoint and this is the checkpoint that cuts off the Jenin area from the rest of the West Bank.

Nasser Abufarha runs a fair trade export business in Jenin. Every time he takes a trip to Europe or the United States to meet with clients he has to navigate the West Bank’s labyrinth of more than 500 military checkpoints.

Abufarha: So the car has to stop until the soldier wave for them to step ahead. And they ask for our ID’s.

Abufarha is slowly making his way to Jordan where he’ll catch his flight to Europe. The journey takes an entire day. Tel Aviv’s airport is only an hour and a half away. But it’s off limits to Palestinians. Abufarha says this is the bitter pill. Israel’s luxury high rises and busy ports are all visible from this road. But they’re a world away.

In the West Bank, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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