‘There is zero work’: Occupied West Bank paralysed as economy stalls

Israel-ordered shutdowns and settler attacks in occupied West Bank take devastating toll on Palestinian economy.

Palestinians attend Friday noon prayers ahead of a demonstration in solidarity with the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Ramallah
Palestinians attend Friday noon prayers ahead of a demonstration in solidarity with the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, October 20, 2023 [Nasser Nasser/AP]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – The central bus stop in downtown Ramallah is usually bustling with people and traffic.

But since October 7, the buses have been parked up and the drivers sitting idle, watching the news, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee to pass the time.

“There is zero work,” 40-year-old driver Saleh Nakhleh told Al Jazeera from the rest stop at the bus station, in the central Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We are barely making ends meet,” the father-of-four said.

While drivers can usually earn between 350 to 400 shekels ($86 to $98) a day, their daily income has dropped to about 100 shekels ($24), he explained.

Israel’s continuing military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip was launched in tandem with intensified army restrictions and Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, leaving the three million Palestinian residents there in a state of paralysis and economic standstill.

Major checkpoints are closed, cafes are empty, the once-overflowing university classrooms are void of students and produce on the shelves of stores is starting to dwindle. Travel between cities and to surrounding villages has become a dangerous and difficult feat.

“We do not leave Ramallah – all the roads are closed and there are checkpoints everywhere. People are afraid, and we cannot take responsibility for anyone’s life,” said 35-year-old driver Ali Jamal Taleb.

Ali Taleb
Driver Ali Jamal Taleb, 35, was attacked by Israeli soldiers when he made a trip out of Ramallah [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Taleb described how he was attacked by soldiers when he made a trip to the village of Sinjil some 20km (12 miles) outside Ramallah just under two weeks ago.

“I had two workers from Gaza with me. The soldiers pulled us out of the car and beat us for no reason. They put us up against the wall, tied our arms back and kept beating us. They then left us for two hours on the side of the road, and then let us go,” the father-of-two told Al Jazeera, adding that he believed the soldiers “want revenge”.

‘Sales down by half’

On October 7, Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, launched attacks on Israeli territory. More than 1,400 people in Israel were killed.

Israel responded with a relentless bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip that has persisted for three weeks, killing more than 7,700 Palestinians there to date, including more than 3,000 children, while more than 15,200 people have been injured, spurring worldwide protests over what has been described by many observers as a “genocide”.

In the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli army has stepped up its daily deadly raids on Palestinian neighbourhoods, villages and cities. Killings of residents by armed settlers have also become more frequent, leaving people in a state of fear.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed by the army and settlers in those areas over the past 21 days.

The tense atmosphere and closures in the occupied West Bank have affected almost all sectors of society.

Ibrahim al-Kilani, 57, runs a large fruit and vegetable store in Beitunia on the outskirts of Ramallah. Usually, he brings all his produce from Nablus and some from inside Israel.

Prior to the recent events, al-Kilani would receive one truckload of produce from Nablus every day. Now, the truck makes one trip every two to three days.

“The economic situation is collapsing,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Sales are down by 50 percent. We are facing great difficulties transporting produce – the trips have become expensive in terms of gas and the time it takes for them to arrive,” al-Kilani said.

Much of the fruit he sold came from Israel, “as well as things like mushrooms, broccoli, celery, lettuce,” he said. “All of that is dwindling,” al-Kilani added, pointing to the empty shelves in his store.

Ibrahim al kilani
Fruit and vegetable store owner Ibrahim al-Kilani, 57, said his sales have dropped by 50 percent [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

‘Losing billions of dollars’

The West Bank was in a financial crisis well before the recent events as a result of Israel’s 56-year occupation and heavy restrictions on movement.

The United Nations estimated in 2019 that the Israeli occupation cost the Palestinian economy some $47.7bn in fiscal revenues between 2000 and 2017.

Since October 7, however, things are only getting worse.

“We used to import almost $2bn-worth of products through the Asdod [Ashdod] port [in Israel],” said Rashad Yousef, head of policy and planning at the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Ministry of National Economy.

“That’s gone.”

In addition, the vast majority of the 200,000 Palestinian labourers who work inside Israel and in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, are now jobless.

“We used to make $1.2bn in salaries of labour workers in Israel and in settlements, which would help the economy. That’s dropped down severely – only about 5 percent of these labourers are going to work,” Yousef told Al Jazeera.

bus stop ramallah
Buses parked at the central bus station in Ramallah on October 24, 2023 [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Yousef added that, before the start of the war, the PA had expected gross domestic product (GDP) for the West Bank to rise by 3 percent in 2023. It now expects GDP to drop by that amount instead.

“Factories are being forced to drop their production capacity because they can’t transport their products to other parts of the West Bank.

“We are also facing many difficulties importing and exporting through the border crossing with Jordan,” he added. The PA is particularly concerned about low supplies of basic items, such as vegetable oil, rice, flour and sugar.

“It’s clear that the war on Gaza and the accompanying intensified closure of the occupied West Bank will have a long negative effect on the Palestinian economy,” said Yousef.

“The repercussions will continue to be felt in the next few months, and we expect prices to rise.”

Still, drivers, labourers and store owners in the West Bank say that what they are going through is nothing compared with the situation for Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Back at the bus station in Ramallah, Taleb, the driver, said that while he is worried about the future of the West Bank, the situation is still bearable. “Look at people in Gaza. At least we still have food and water. Our children are still safe, alive and are playing around us.”

Source: Al Jazeera