Hamoud* flips through photos of his first and only apartment in Tel Aviv, where he lived for two and a half years. Nine young men crammed together in a single room apartment with handmade bunk beds, a one-square-metre bathroom and kitchen, and nine bicycles stacked in the corner.
“Away from privacy, you cannot live, you cannot move,” the 27-year-old from Nablus described to MEMO. “If you see the apartment and how we were living, we looked homeless.”
Hamoud had little choice but to stay in this apartment as he worked in various construction and service industry jobs in Tel Aviv. Without an Israeli ID card or Israeli-issued permit to even be there, it was virtually impossible to rent a place on his own.
Hamoud was one of 37,200 Palestinians working inside Israel or on Israeli settlements without proper documentation. He graduated in 2015 with a degree in tourism and archaeology, though soon realised he would not find a livable wage working in his specialisation in the occupied West Bank.
As of 2018, the West Bank is experiencing a youth unemployment rate of 27 per cent, while Gaza is closer to 70 per cent. These rates rise for graduates, 40 per cent of whom aged 20-29 in the West Bank are unemployed, with 77 per cent in the Gaza Strip.
Hamoud’s decision to work inside Israel was not an easy one to make. Since the Israeli-imposed permit regime and the construction of the Separation Wall, Palestinian green ID holders (aka those living in the West Bank or Gaza) cannot pass any of the 40+ military checkpoints to enter inside the green line without a proper permit. It is notoriously difficult for young, single men to acquire such a permit, “because they don’t want you to stay there,” Hamoud explained.
In order to reach the opportunities and better pay that await inside the Green Line, then, Palestinians like Hamoud must pass through the Separation Wall illegally. Either way – via smuggling or forged documents – is dangerous and expensive. And when on the other side, illegal workers are constantly on edge as profiling police routinely stop anyone who resembles a Palestinian, asking for documents.
For some, just the idea of being on the Israeli side of the wall sparks some resignation. “It’s kind of hard to get this idea of working for Israeli people,” expressed Acer*, a 24-year-old from Ramallah who also spent time working in Tel Aviv.
“I don’t like it, but I have to do it because it’s not happening here anymore – to make a future for yourself,” he sighed.
A dependent economy with nowhere to go
A World Bank report from earlier this year indicated that there was no real growth to the Palestinians GDP in 2018, pointing at the Israeli withholding of Palestinian tax revenues (or maqasa in Arabic) as a primary signifier of a “fiscal shock” expected to be felt.
But a mixture of occupation restrictions, donor fatigue or the pulling of depended on foreign aid, and money mismanagement within the Palestinian Authority all contribute to the choked Palestinian economy.
“The Palestinian economy is on the brink of collapse,” Mark Samander, researcher at the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, explained, adding that GDP in Gaza is already negative 12, with the West Bank expected to reach negative three by mid-2020.
“In any normal country you have phases of development. We skipped the industrial phase… and went straight into the service industry and this did affect the development of the economy,” Samander said. “The main resources,” primarily those related to technology and infrastructure, he added, “come from Israel because we don’t have the capacity. It’s all due to the Israeli restrictions but, also, we just have really bad national action plans for the development of the economy.”
The debilitating effects of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy mixed with poor action plans from the PA to address economic issues all lead to a brain drain, according to Samander, either through immigration out of the country or attempts to find better opportunities in Israel. Since the PA does not have proper jurisdiction over certain areas of the West Bank where unemployment is the highest, specifically Area C, this is where the brain drain starts.
The capacity of the private sector to help advance young Palestinians is also very limited from the spiraling economy. Samander noted that part of the reason why the graduate unemployment rate is so high is “because there are no internship or training programs while they are doing their undergrad because there are no opportunities for companies to open their doors for that.” Especially when it comes to the fields of engineering and technology, which Israel also has a tight grip on.
“If there is someone into high-tech [from Area C], you will probably see them working in a hub in Tel Aviv, working for Israeli companies. They are really smart but they can’t find opportunities here or in their areas.” If they are unable to find a way into the Palestinian market, “then they just do labour work in settlements or [work] in the Israeli market. The general situation for the youth is not looking too good.”
“I used to get 38 shekels [$10.7] per hour there [in Israel]. Here [in the West Bank] it is eight shekels [$2.2],” said Hamoud. “When I think about this, I think I am just wasting my time here. It’s hard to go back to that.”
An outsider on the inside
“It was my first time inside since 14 years,” Acer described his initial working experience in Tel Aviv. He was living in the apartment buildings which he was painting in an ultra-religious neighbourhood. “It felt really weird… Even buildings and the culture; I didn’t feel like I am in Palestine,” referring to the historic borders.
“When I went to the city, it was nice. It was something new,” he continued, pointing out that the way he dresses, styles his hair, and has tattoos allows him the privilege of walking around town a little more freely, claiming he could pass as a foreigner. “I mean, they are the enemy, but it was really nice [to have] a view, a nice landscape, the sea.”
Despite his look, Acer rarely left the place where he worked. “We go to the supermarket that is there to buy food and things that we need. But also this is stressful because there are always police cars driving around.”
As not only illegal workers but green ID holding Palestinians, Acer and Hamoud had to lay as low as possible to avoid being caught by the police and sent back to the West Bank. Even on the day-to-day, it was best not to share their true identity over fear of how someone might react.
“I was just acting and lying. I had to, even with friends,” said Hamoud, who would often claim he was from Nazareth or if stopped by the police, an Italian tourist.
Hamoud pointed out that he worked in a kitchen with many refugees, mainly from Africa, who were also undocumented. “They don’t check them often like Arabs. With Arabs its different,” he said. “I know there is racism, especially if you are Arab.”
*Names changed to protect privacy
Updated on 15 October 2019 at 15:44 to include additional quotes from Mark Samander
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.