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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Palestinians struggle in dire straits
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jenin

Hassan (Photo: Martin Asser)
Charcoal is mass-produced in Yabad using pre-industrial techniques
Hassan is 53, but the lines on his face suggest a man at least 20 years older; when asked to describe what his life is like he uses a single word: "al-mawt" (death).

He is a charcoal-burner in the blackened, smoke-filled valleys around Yabad, in the northern West Bank.

It takes two weeks of low-oxygen incineration to make charcoal from the carefully packed mounds of citrus wood covered in cinders.

The burners must constantly tend the mounds, applying wet straw to maintain the temperature for producing charcoal.

It is sweltering work for a few dollars a day. There is no respite from the choking fumes getting into eyes, nose and mouth, and lungs; after a few minutes of just standing near the mounds you feel asphyxiated.

The fumes are why there is nearly twice the normal rate for chronic respiratory disease here and higher mortality, not only among burners but also Yabad's 20,000 inhabitants.

But charcoal is one of the few sources of income available in what has become a severely economically depressed area.

Catastrophic loss

The economy is in freefall; people are living in conditions I would compare to parts of Africa and the poorest parts of Asia
Charles Clayton
National Director, World Vision
Jenin and surrounding villages used to rely on three main activities, agriculture, labouring jobs in Israel and employment in the Palestinian Authority.

But the area is now sealed off from Israel by the West Bank barrier, water is scarce for irrigation and the PA has little money to pay employees.

Unemployment has reached 90% in some villages, poverty levels have risen "dramatically" in the words of the World Bank, and the average annual income has fallen by nearly a third since 1999.

Parts of society are falling back on subsistence farming and scavenging, or surviving on handouts.

"I've met trained teachers pulling stones from the ground to help their neighbours prepare for planting," says Charles Clayton, national director of the World Vision organisation which is starting development work in the area.

"What we are seeing is a catastrophic loss of the economy; it's in freefall so that people are living in conditions I would compare to parts of Africa and the poorest parts of Asia."

Although Hassan has been making charcoal for 15 years, his workmates now include university graduates.

Hundreds of the polluting black mounds line the roads around Yabad and their numbers are increasing week-by-week.

"We call it DE-development," says Mr Clayton. "Most of World Vision's work is about development, this is unique, and it is artificially created."

Doubly displaced

Per capita GDP:
$1,129 ($1,612)
Households in poverty:
31% (20%)
In deep poverty - Gaza:
35% (21.6%)
In deep poverty - West Bank;
13% (8.4%)
Source: UN figures, 2006 (1998)
Yabad's charcoal industry may be harmful to health and environment, but at least it has exploitable resources such as land and a supply of wood.

Large quantities of charcoal are transported to Israel; with its long shelf-life it is immune to delays at Israel's military checkpoints and there's a ready market for hubble-bubble pipes and barbecues.

Other communities, like nearby Fahma al-Jadida, are not so blessed. Many of the 750 residents in this former Jordanian army camp are doubly displaced and have no ancestral land.

They fled to Gaza from the former Palestine when Israel was created in 1948, and were expelled to the West Bank after 1967 when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip.

"Whoever had money went elsewhere, and only the poorest are left," explains village headman Samir Abu Mashayikh.

Charcoal production area, Yabad (Photo: Martin Asser)
Yabad has resources to survive but at a cost to health and environment
In the current dire economic situation, foraging for scrap metal is the only source of income left for many.

Families survive on a few bags of rice, flour and sugar from relief agencies.

"Most families only taste fresh meat once a year, at the Eid donated by Islamic charities," says Mr Abu Mashayikh.

Young breadwinners

A shocking, but typical example of conditions in Fahma al-Jadida is provided by Mahmoud al-Mjadou's family.

Their home for the last seven years has been a two-room concrete former blockhouse on the edge of the camp.

The walls are stained with mould and smoke and their few possessions - bed, TV, carpet, electric fan - do little to remove the impression of a poorly lit cow shed.

The reinforced concrete ceiling is crumbling dangerously, letting in rainwater during winter months.

Iyad, 11, with brother, sister and mother (Photo: Martin Asser)
Iyad Mjadou,11, bears the scars of his job scavenging for scrap
Mahmoud's wife sits on the carpet with the fan trained on her nine-month-old infant son who is struggling to breathe because of illness. She is pregnant with what will be her ninth child if the pregnancy is successful.

Ten-year-old Iyad has singed his eyebrows and has angry-look burns on his face from an accident five days earlier when he was setting fire to electric cables.

It wasn't a child's game. The youngsters are the breadwinners here, burning cables and old radial tyres to extract the metal.

At the moment Mahmoud himself cannot earn a living. He used to deliver scrap metal to a local dealer, but his unlicensed vehicle was recently stopped at an Israeli flying checkpoint and confiscated.

Reduced workforce

Wherever you go in the northern West Bank the stories are the same.

Residents tell of a once-thriving region doing lucrative trade over the Green Line, not just with the Israeli Arabs who predominate in the plains to the north of the West Bank, but Israeli Jews too.

The costs are going to be massive, and it'll take a decade to be a functioning place again
Charles Clayton
National Director, World Vision
The West Bank barrier - built to prevent terrorist attacks, according to Israel - has stopped all that.

It has also cut off the livelihoods of the large numbers of labourers who used to cross into Israel to work on farms and building sites.

It is not unusual to find a workforce of hundreds of labourers in a village, who once brought financial security to many hundreds more, reduced to just a handful men getting the necessary permits to cross into Israel.

Others find ways to cross illegally, but there are risks. They face arrest by the authorities and anyone involved in an industrial accident can be sent home without medical support or compensation.

For most northern West Bankers, though, there seems little hope for the future as jobs become scarcer and bills become harder to pay.

For development specialists like Charles Clayton there is an urgent need to counter the Palestinian de-development phenomenon, but it is also important not to normalise "something that should never be normal".

"This is man-made poverty, and there are people whose lives could be completely transformed by the decision of politicians," he said.

"The costs are going to be massive, and it'll take a decade to be a functioning place again, but within just a few weeks of that decision there would be a different attitude."

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