Border closures force Palestinians out of work

Employment prospects for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip
"are absolutely desperate", according to Samir Radwan, special
adviser to the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the territories.

"Before the latest intifada [uprising against Israeli occupation],
which began in September 2000, 120,000 Palestinians crossed the border daily to
work in Israel. Now the number is down to 5,000, with many of them working
illegally," he said.

A report recently published by the Office of the United Nations Special
Coordinator in the occupied territories (UNSCO) also high-lighted the effects
of border closures and mobility restrictions on the Palestinian economy, saying
they were the primary cause for the rapid economic deterioration witnessed
since the since the start of the intifada. "As a direct result of the
first 15 months of border closures and internal movement restrictions, the
Palestinian economy has shrunk by more than 30 per cent; unemployment has increased
by 15 per cent; per capita, income has declined 24 per cent, and the poverty
rate more than doubled to 46 per cent," said the report.

UNSCO estimated that unemployment, including discouraged workers (those no
longer looking for employment), at the end of 2001 had reached 50 per cent in
Gaza and 30 per cent in the West Bank. "Since then," says Radwan,
"there has been another tremendous rise in unemployment – reaching as high
as 68 per cent, according to some sources in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

At the same time, poverty is becoming an increasingly serious problem. The
latest assessment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO) is that some 80 per cent of Palestinians are living on
less than $2 a day.

Ways of helping Palestinians cope with the employment difficulties were
proposed in a report to the 90th session of the Inter-national Labour
Conference in Geneva last June, by the director-general of the ILO, Juan
Somavia. Talking in terms of "an economy grinding to a halt", the
report said the ILO should "immediately reassess existing programmes of
technical co-operation in the light of the new situation and the priorities
resulting from the present humanitarian crisis. This should be done within six
weeks of the end of the conference in co-operation with Palestinian tripartite
constituents, the donor community and interested parties."

But such has been the intensity of violence and the extent of Israeli
occupation and closures since then that little has been achieved. Nevertheless,
Radwan says the ILO is still "trying to help Palestinians face up to their
dire situation. Our top priority is the creation of a Palestinian fund for
employment and social protection."

Another priority is an attempt to activate local markets. Not only have tens
of thou-sands of Palestinians been unable to cross into Israel to find work,
but private sector businesses inside towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip have been severely affected. So tight are the restrictions on travel in and
around the Palestinian territories, that importing goods has become extremely
difficult. "It now costs more to trans-port goods from the Israeli port of
Ashdod to Ramallah in the West Bank – a journey of less than an hour under
normal circum-stances – than it does to ship the goods from Shanghai to
Ashdod," said Radwan

To ease the plight of unemployed Palestinians trapped in towns and villages
across the territories, the ILO is also urging international donors to provide
funds to create jobs to keep people occupied, particularly youth and women who
are bearing the brunt of the intifada. Radwan points out that "half of the
Palestinian population is under 40 years of age, and most of the unemployed are
youths. If they have nothing to do all day, of course they will take to the
streets and throw stones. It is in everyone’s interests to deal with the
unemployment and poverty – especially to Israel’s security," he said.

Somavia is to report back to the governing body of the International Labour
Conference next November on the measures taken by the ILO thus far. But until a
political solution brings an end to the violence and the closures, Palestinian
unemployment is likely to remain a grave problem.

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