Reportage. ‘We are in a cycle of inflation and unemployment: the Palestinians will not be able to support themselves in the context of an economy already dependent on that of the occupier, which decides what goes in and out.’

Its economy cut off, the West Bank risks a popular uprising

Ahmed tries to make light of the situation: “By this time, there would be chocolate and candy wrappers all over the ground in front of the school. The kids would come out, they’d crowd into the small stores and then – you know how kids are – they’d throw the wrappers on the ground. Now that the parents can no longer afford to give them one or two shekels for sweets, everything’s clean.”

The West Bank is at the end of its rope as we enter the fifth month of the offensive. The spiral of violence, lockdowns, nightly army raids, mass arrests and job losses has reached an explosive peak. A mixture of resignation, exploiting loopholes to survive and anger is everywhere. The people don’t hide it: it comes out in their language, the way they speak, the glacial irony.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, doctors went on strike after they hadn’t received full pay for months. It’s the same for teachers: schools are open, universities are still holding classes remotely, but the teachers only receive half of their already-meager pay.

“Luckily,” almost every extended family has someone working in the public sector, so at least some money comes in at the end of the month. In the household of Mona, a teacher on the outskirts of Bethlehem, she has been the only one receiving wages since October 7.

Since then, 100,000 workers employed in Israel have been sitting at home after their work permits were canceled immediately. Another 150,000 undocumented migrants working in Israel also faced a crackdown. Through them, according to the Economic Policy Research Institute, €3.5 billion used to come into the West Bank each year. Now the hotels are empty, restaurants too, and the stores only open when they can. It’s all too expensive.

“Four months ago, five kilograms of tomatoes would set you back eight shekels. Today you need 18 shekels for just one kilo,” says Ahmed, a volunteer with the Dheisheh Popular Committee. “Vegetables used to come from Jericho and Jenin, but nowadays, with the military closure of the West Bank, the little that can be found is increasingly unaffordable.”

Finding local produce, from the countryside around Bethlehem, is also a problem. “Villages such as Battir, Nahalin, Hussam, are closed down. The farmers who used to come to the market every morning to sell are gone. Many are unable to farm because of settler violence. We burned the olive harvest this year.”

Khalil used to be a house painter in Jerusalem. He has five children, a dog and “a two-room house. Back in Beit Shemesh, my home village, we had acres of land.” He is a 1948 refugee, living in Dheisheh camp. For years he worked in a hotel in Bethlehem, until he managed to obtain the coveted Israel work permit.

He says he no longer knows what to say to his children who see him stay at home every day: “We have no control over our lives. I should explain to my children what’s happening but I don’t know how to get them to imagine the future anymore. We’ve never had any certainty, economically or otherwise.”

Helu is young and doesn’t have children. He lives with his parents. He used to work as a laborer in the Beitar Illit colony. Last week, his was one of 75 families to whom the popular committee, together with the Italian NGO Acs and Ya Basta ÊdîBese, delivered a food package: oil, flour, sugar, pasta.

“We needed it. We ran out of our savings. I work at most one day per week, when I manage to find something. I used to earn 300 shekels a day; today I earn 50. And everything costs three times as much.”

In the camp, the tension fills the air. In the maze of alleyways, which conceal tiny courtyards of roses and fruit trees, many small stores are closed. A woman comes out from a mini market; she is the owner. She asks Ahmed if the committee can help her buy medicine.

For months, the UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which was short of funds to start with, has been unable to cover medicine-related expenses. The fear is that the system will break down completely after 13 Western countries have cut off funding (as a result of Israel accusing 12 of the agency’s Gazawi employees of taking part in the October 7 violence).

“The effect will be massive,” Ahmed continues. “Here, the UNRWA runs the schools and clinics, and it is also responsible for sourcing medicines and providing aid packages when possible. That’s what it did during COVID. Now it’s in danger of collapsing.”

A hundred or so employees with stable employment are also at risk, because for years the UNRWA has been unable to afford to hire permanently, opting for one-month contracts when funds come in. It also no longer contributes to the cost of surgeries and medical treatment that have to be done outside the camp clinics: it used to cover 75 percent, now it doesn’t anymore.

There is a list of names put up at the committee office, above the desk. After the packages were delivered to 75 families, over just a few days another 100 showed up here asking for help. “There are many more who need it,” says Sara, a volunteer. “We know because we know them. Many are too ashamed to come.”

They can no longer count on contributions from the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) either, which used to cover aid for the neediest families. “Now our cash fund is empty. We have debts to pharmacies.” The PNA can’t even pay its own salaries, let alone distribute economic support to others.

“The situation in the public sector is not new: for the past year, Israel has frozen part of the Palestinian tax funds it collects for the PNA, but now the situation is drastic: it has not delivered anything since October 7. Since 2023, civil servants have been receiving 50 percent of their salary some months, 65 percent in other months; now it has dropped again to 50 percent,” Palestinian economist Basel Natsheh explains. The PNA is not receiving an average of 550 million shekels (€140 million) per month, “35 percent of the Palestinian budget.”

“In the last four months of 2023, the Occupied Territories’ GDP shrank by 30 percent,” he continues. “As towns and villages closed, economic activities slowed dramatically in terms of local employment and production. We used to have an unemployment rate of 14% in the West Bank; now it is 35%, according to official data. But it’s actually higher: very many were working off the books. We are in a cycle of inflation and unemployment: the Palestinians will not be able to support themselves in the context of an economy already dependent on that of the occupier, which decides what goes in and out.”

Many are speaking out about the risk of a social explosion that will not be easily controlled. A mix of economic deterioration and political frustration, of daily humiliation and a sense of powerlessness: “There is a risk of chaos,” Natsheh concludes. “Theft, violence, but also a popular uprising. People can’t take it anymore.”

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