A street in Salfit, in the West Bank, is shown under lockdown on March 25. (Creative Commons)

Despite State of Emergency, PA Seeks Return to Normal

Leadership moves to gradually reopen economy stunned by pandemic as laborers return to jobs in Israel

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Tuesday extended the state of emergency in the West Bank for another month, but at the same issued orders allowing most businesses to gradually return to normal from the lockdown that began on March 5.

Companies, institutions, shops and public transportation were instructed to gradually reopen, with limited hours, starting on Monday. Adherence to the restrictions is to be monitored by the Palestinian security forces.

On Sunday, about 8,500 Palestinians left the West Bank and returned to work in Israel. They are expected to stay there until Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, which is set for May 24, give or take a day.

Nasr Abd al-Kareem, a professor of finance and banking science at the American University in Ramallah, told The Media Line that the PA had no choice but to relax the lockdown, despite the risk. After more than 40 days of full closure and curfew, he said, pressure had mounted on certain sectors of the economy, especially workers and small businesses that operated without labor contracts and were in danger of closing down.

“The PA is financially unable to provide the Palestinian [business] sector with a protective net, or support the workers with cash grants,” Abd al-Kareem elaborated. “At the same time, it can’t prevent people from going to work without being able to help them financially.”

The Palestinian leadership was trying to strike a “magical balance between the health risk and the economic damage, on the one hand, and to expand the ability of people to move, on the other. The goal is to allow people to work, and the country’s economy to function,” he stated.

“The PA’s success in managing the health crisis hasn’t been matched by success in dealing with the repercussions of the economic crisis, which has become a more serious dilemma than the actual epidemic,” he said.

The Palestinian Council of Ministers has called for strict adherence to the preventive measures and instructions announced by the Health Ministry, including social distancing, constant hygienic sterilization, and the wearing of gloves and masks in public places. Officials stressed that the epidemiological situation in Palestinian lands and the extent of citizens’ commitment to the precautionary procedures would be constantly evaluated.

Azmy Abd al-Rahman, spokesperson for the Economy Ministry, told The Media Line that the PA’s top priority was to protect Palestinians, but that after two months of lockdown, “the wheel of the Palestinian economy” had come to a halt.

“As a consequence, income decreased by 50%, and public revenue by 30%, while the budget deficit has reached $1.5 billion,” he said.

Abd al-Rahman added that the number of people infected with the virus was limited, and that in some governorates, there were no cases at all.

“As a matter of necessity, we had to gradually reopen things, especially since all Palestinian sectors were affected by the global pandemic [and the lockdown], in particular tourism and services,” he noted.

He also said the PA was trying to balance economic activity and public health.

“The already high unemployment in the West Bank has increased from 28% to 31% despite the fact that we have more than 200,000 workers in Israel,” he said.

Abd al-Rahman told The Media Line that some of the continuing economic difficulties came “simply because we have no control over our resources, or sovereignty over our land, because of the [Israeli] occupation, which controls borders, natural resources, movement and other critical matters.”

He said employment in Israel was an important part of the Palestinian economy, as was shopping in the PA by Arab citizens of Israel, estimated to total 1.5 billion shekels (about $427 million) annually.

“But Israel works constantly to keep our economy dependent on its economy for many reasons, including the Israeli need for the productivity of the Palestinian worker, who lives nearby and ends up spending his salary in the Israeli market as well,” he said.

When Israel tried to replace Palestinian workers with laborers from Asia, it faced an economic issue, as those workers cost more and ended up sending all of their salaries back home, he said.

“In the end, Israel is obligated to give our workers, like all workers, their full rights, without procrastination or requiring resource to the courts,” he stated. “Our workers are human beings, and Israel is not doing anything special by giving them their basic rights, but actually it shows the Israeli racism, since providing legitimate rights required a court case.”

On Wednesday, several watchdog groups in Israel – Kav LaOved−Worker’s Hotline, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Physicians for Human Rights – announced that the country had agreed to provide insurance and accommodations for Palestinian construction workers staying in Israel due to the COVID-19 epidemic rather than going home nightly. There will also be government oversight of their living conditions.

The announcement came a day after the three groups filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice.

Under the new directives, Palestinian workers will be treated in Israeli clinics or hospitals when needed. The court also obligated Israeli employers to provide certain living conditions, as specified in emergency regulations. Additionally, the practice of taking personal documents from employees to restrict their movement was canceled.

Abir Joubran Dakwar, a lawyer and head of the Occupied Palestinian Territories unit at ACRI, told The Media Line that the Israeli government accepted almost all of the petitioners’ demands regarding accommodations, insurance and work conditions.

“It’s a huge success, where the decision took effect yesterday [May 5],” she said. “Employers are now obligated to secure the workers and equip them with needed preventive measures [against coronavirus], just like any other foreign workers in Israel.”

Dakwar added that until now, workers unable to return to their homes in the West Bank slept in their workplace, but now they should be provided rooms for two, a bathroom and other specified services.

“A lot of things have changed for Palestinian workers now,” she said.

Dakwar urged employers to adhere to the official decision, and for the Israeli government to monitor implementation of the court order.

“Emergency regulations are usually later converted to laws. I urge that the regulation be passed as is by the Knesset, without any changes, as employers will try to amend it before it becomes a law,” she said.

Palestinian health authorities have reported 371 coronavirus infections and two deaths in the West Bank. The PA has blamed Israel for the rise in COVID-19 cases, as the most recent cases were linked to laborers returning from Israel, with some having entered via unmonitored routes.

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