Page last updated at 00:47 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 01:47 UK

Dilemma of Palestinian settlement builders

Construction site in Maale Adumim (Aug 2009)
Construction is still under way in Maale Adumim, despite calls for a freeze

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Maale Adumim

"I feel like a slave," says 21-year-old Palestinian Musanna Khalil Mohammed Rabbaye.

"But I have no alternative," he says, as he waits among a group of sun-beaten men in dusty work boots outside the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim.

The phrase comes up again and again as the labourers try to explain why they spend their days hammering and shovelling to help build the Jewish settlements eating into the land they want for a future state of Palestine.

Mr Rabbaye wants to be a journalist and is trying to fund his studies.

Jaffar Khalil Kawazba, 24, says he is supporting his 10 brothers and sisters as his father is too ill to work. Fahd Sayara, 40, is trying to fund treatment for his disabled child.

Hossam Hussein, labourer in Maale Adumim
It's a very bad feeling - you can see how we're losing our land, bit by bit
Hossam Hussein
Palestinian labourer

"I'm not the only one. My whole village works in the settlements," says Mr Rabbaye.

"Everything, all the settlements - even most of the Wall - was built by Palestinians," he says, referring to the separation barrier, detested by the Palestinian population, that Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

The settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are illegal under international law.

The Palestinian Authority is refusing to negotiate unless Israel heeds US pressure to stop all construction in the settlements.

Israel says it wants to keep building, at the very least to provide homes for the "natural growth" of the 450,000-strong Jewish settler population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Job shortage

But with about 30% of West Bank Palestinians out of work, and average earnings in the territory little more than half Israel's minimum wage, labouring in the settlements has its appeal for Palestinians.

Some 12,000 Palestinian construction workers get Israeli permits to work in the settlements each year.

Salesman Meir Levi, Maale Adumim
Mr Levi says prices have gone up amid international pressure for a freeze

"We do not condone it, we would like them to stop," says Bassam Khoury, the Palestinian Authority's Economy Minister.

"But as a human being I cannot tell them 'Go hungry' at a time when I am not able to provide them with jobs," he says.

The West Bank economy is heavily reliant on aid, long crippled by checkpoints, roadblocks and other restrictions which Israel says are for its citizens' security.

Mr Khoury says these are largely designed to protect the settlements.

"The first thing we need to do is to stop settlements, stopping settlements will break the shackles the Israelis are putting on the Palestinian economy and as a result we will jumpstart the Palestinian economy and then we can find jobs for those people," he explains.

But the Israelis, who have eased several key checkpoints in recent months as part of a plan to boost what they term "economic peace", accuse the Palestinians of failing to co-operate and attract investment.

And some of the Palestinian workers blame their own leaders. Mr Rabbaye says simply: "Our president should give us jobs."

'Very low wages

The Palestinian workers "will be the first to be hurt" if construction stops, says Israeli salesman Meir Levi, as he leafs through brightly-coloured plans of five-room family villas.

No new projects are being approved, he says, and prices have already gone up 10-15% in the past three months as buyers forecast a squeeze on supply.

Jaffar Khalil Kawazba, Palestinian worker in Maale Adumim
Mr Kawazba says he is supporting 10 siblings with his wages

Mr Levi has worked in construction for about two decades and remembers the days when tens of thousands of workers came from the Gaza Strip and West Bank to build homes right across Israel.

"The salary was very good, they used to build their houses, have cars, make very good progress for their families," he said.

But since the intifada that began in 2000 brought a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, the number of workers allowed into Israel has plummeted, along with the wages they are paid.

"Now the price is very low," he says. "They get paid 150 shekels a day, but I remember in the 1990s I used to pay 200 shekels for a very simple worker".

Several of the labourers I interviewed said they were paid even less - 100 or 110 shekels ($26 or $29) per day - below the Israeli minimum wage of 150 shekels ($40).

Salwa Alenat of Israeli workers' rights organisation Kav LaOved
Ms Alenat is keen to explain to the workers their legal rights

Israeli law has applied to Palestinians working in the settlements since a 2007 Supreme Court decision.

Salwa Alenat, an Israeli-Arab labour activist with the organisation Kav LaOved, says paying less than the minimum wage is illegal - despite the fact that workers are in many cases hired through a chain of subcontractors, sometimes West Bank-based Palestinian companies.

"There is no enforcement. It's like a jungle… the employer can pay whatever he wants, the subcontractor can get whatever he wants, and the workers lose," says Ms Alenat.

Palestinian labourer Musanna Khalil Mohammed Rabbaye
We should go on strike
Musanna Khalil Mohammed Rabbaye
Palestinian labourer

The Israeli authorities say Palestinians have redress through the courts, and that few complaints have been lodged.

But Ms Alenat says they fear losing their jobs and also their work permits, which are often obtained through the contractors.

So the workers keep coming, and the settlements keep growing - though many people believe Maale Adumim will end up in Israel under an eventual peace deal.

"It's hard to describe the feeling, it's a very bad feeling - you can see how we're losing our land, bit by bit," says Hossam Hussein, 26, as he mixes mortar to put the finishing touches to a home with sweeping views from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea hills.

All the workers I spoke to said they wanted a settlement freeze, even if it meant losing their jobs, although none seemed to have a clear alternative plan.

But most did not believe it would happen.

"We should go on strike," said Mr Rabbaye.

But an older labourer quickly interjected: "And then what are you going to live on?"

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