Mohammed Daraghmeh
The Statesman
April 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Palestinians who violate a new ban on working in Israeli settlements will be given time to find other employment before facing punishment, a top official said, reflecting just of how hard it will be to enforce the measure in the job-strapped West Bank.

The law, which also prohibits the sale of Israeli settlement products in the West Bank, was signed this week by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Violators face up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

Palestinians view the more than 120 settlements that Israel has built across the West Bank as a key obstacle to setting up their own state. Supporters of the tough new legislation say it's the least Palestinians can do to stop helping settlements flourish.

Palestinian security forces have confiscated about $5.3 million worth of goods produced in Israeli settlements in recent months since the Palestinian government first announced a crackdown on the products. Some shipments have even been intercepted en route to West Bank businesses, Economics Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh said.

However, enforcing a ban on work in Jewish settlements could prove more difficult.

About 21,000 Palestinians are employed in the settlements, Palestinian Labor Minister Ahmed Majdalani said Wednesday. They build new houses or work in industrial parks. Despite a recent modest economic recovery, nearly a quarter of the West Bank's labor force remains unemployed, and settlement workers might have difficulty finding other jobs.

Abu Libdeh said the workers would not face immediate punishment.

"We will give (them) a grace period, and then we will implement (the law)," he told The Associated Press late Tuesday. He would not say how much time workers would have to find new employment.

Still, Abu Libdeh said the Palestinian Authority is determined to phase out work in settlements. "I don't think Palestinians will sympathize that much with anyone working in settlements," he said.

Majdalani said that since the beginning of the year, the Palestinian government has stopped helping Palestinians get Israeli permits for employment in settlements, but still supports those looking for work in Israel. About 25,000 Palestinians have work permits for Israel.

Maysara Obeid, who has worked for an Israeli aluminum factory in a West Bank industrial park for five years, said he would quit his job if threatened with prison.

"But then, the Palestinian Authority is required to find us alternative jobs," he said. "I have no alternative."

Obeid said he makes 160 shekels, or about $43 a day, more than twice what he would earn in the area's only Palestinian-owned aluminum factory, which he said has no job openings.

Israeli government officials and the Manufacturers Association of Israel have denounced the new law.

"Whoever takes such steps is not seeking peace, but rather to continue the conflict," said Silvan Shalom, Israel's minister for regional cooperation. "While Israel is making great efforts to promote and improve the Palestinian economy, this order damages the chances of both economic and political peace."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promoted the idea of "economic peace," including closer economic cooperation with the Palestinians.

He has done more than his predecessors to ease restrictions on Palestinian trade and movement, but Palestinians have dismissed Netanyahu's plan as a poor substitute for real independence.

The Israeli and West Bank economies are closely intertwined, though in a lopsided relationship. Bilateral trade amounts to about $4 billion a year, but Israel sells far more to the Palestinians than it buys from them.

Abu Libdeh says more than $200 million worth of settlement products are sold to Palestinians every year.


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