The Palestinian government in the West Bank plans a $50 million fund to help workers quit jobs in Israeli settlements by the end of the year, the labor minister said Thursday — a significant step in a widening campaign to cut ties with the Israeli enclaves built on land the Palestinians want for their state.
Israel has denounced the campaign as harmful to renewed U.S.-led peace efforts, and Israeli settler leaders called on their government to retaliate with economic sanctions. Even among many Palestinians, the ban on working in settlements will be a difficult sell, since unemployment remains high and workers said they fear ending up broke or on welfare.
Palestinians also are being urged to stop buying goods made in settlements. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad threw his own weight behind the initiative Thursday, joining thousands of volunteers in a door-to-door campaign to encourage people to participate in the boycott.
Leaders say Palestinians must set an example if they expect the world to take a stand on the settlements, one of the most intractable issues in the Mideast conflict. The enclaves have been built on territory Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and are now home to nearly half a million Israelis.
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, pulling out soldiers and destroying the nearly two dozen settlements it had built there.
'What took us so long?
Internationally, the settlements are seen as illegal. But Israel, while slowing construction in recent months, has refused to comply with demands for a total freeze in the West Bank.
"The question on everybody's mind is, what took us so long?" Fayyad said after handing out a brochure with 500 settlement products on the ban list, ranging from pretzels and juice to building material, to a family. He donned a white T-shirt like the other volunteers, who have been canvassing for 10 days.
Last month, the Palestinian government outlawed both the sale of settlement goods and work in settlements, with violators facing stiff fines and even prison. But while Palestinian security forces have begun confiscating settlement goods in recent months, the work ban will not be enforced until the end of the year.
More than 20,000 Palestinians work in settlement factories and construction sites, generally earning as much as double than those employed in Palestinian businesses. Palestinian officials have said it will take time and money to find new jobs for them.
Palestinian Labor Minister Ahmed Majdalani told The Associated Press on Thursday that the government plans to raise $50 million in local and international contributions in a "dignity fund" to ease the transition for workers. He said the Palestinian Cabinet would formally announce the fund Monday at its weekly session.
Majdalani did not say how much money, if any, already has been raised or which donors would be approached. He said the fund would be used as an incentive to Palestinian employers to hire former settlement workers, by paying half their salaries for the first year.
The Palestinian Authority already receives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from donor countries each year, and it was not clear if donors would be willing to pay more, especially for an effort seen by some Israeli officials as a provocation.
Fayyad said he hopes more jobs will be created as consumers shun settlement goods and buy more Palestinian-made products, but would not discuss specific plans for the settlement workers.
Despite government assurances, many Palestinians who work in settlement factories or construction sites say they are deeply worried. Several laborers emerging this week from the gate of Barkan, a settlement industrial park, said they were angry at the government and felt they were being asked to make unfair sacrifices.
The workers have to park their cars outside the gates because they are considered potential security risks, but otherwise even those who feel conflicted about working in a settlement said they were being treated fairly by their employers.
"The Palestinian Authority should find us jobs before they ask us to leave our jobs," said Suhail Jaber, 33, who works in a picture frame factory in Barkan and supports a family of eight on his $1,000 monthly salary. "I hate working in settlements because they are erected on land confiscated from us, but there is no alternative."
Jaber said that if forced to quit without getting a new job he might turn to stealing to feed his family. Samer Awad, 23, said he would sleep in Barkan's furniture factory to avoid detection by Palestinian law enforcement, rather than quit. Suleiman Khalil, who makes $1,300 a month, said that if forced to leave, he would default on the $900-a-month payments on his new house.
Dan Catarivas, an official in the Israel Manufacturers' Association, said the anti-settlement campaign would hurt Palestinian workers, not Israel's powerhouse economy. He said most settlement factories sell their products in Israel and abroad, not in the Palestinian territories, and that the Palestinian workers could be replaced quickly.
"This is ... moving contrary to the whole spirit of cooperation in the future," he said.
Israeli government officials have also slammed the anti-settlement campaign as counterproductive, at a time when peace negotiations — albeit indirect contacts through an American mediator — have resumed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered closer economic cooperation and has done more than his predecessor to ease some of the stringent restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement.
However, the Palestinians say they won't be deterred.
"This is not about a boycott of Israeli products. This is about the boycott of settlement products," Fayyad said of the campaign. "This is both the right and the duty of the Palestinian people."