Palestinians delay ban on working in Jewish settlements because of economic hardships

By Mohammed Daraghmeh, AP
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Palestinians delay ban on work in settlements

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian government said Tuesday it is determined to stop thousands of Palestinians from working in Israeli settlements, but that it won’t enforce the ban until the end of the year because of economic hardships.

Setting the date, Economics Minister Hassan Abu Libdeh pledged harsh punishments for working in settlements after the ban takes effect.

Another part of the law, forbidding sales of products made in settlements, is already in force. However, the ban on Palestinians working in settlements is harder to enforce because of high unemployment.

Also Tuesday, Palestinians charged that Jewish settlers set fire to a mosque in a West Bank village, but Israeli media said the blaze might have been accidental.

The timetable for the crackdown on settlement labor came as Israeli-Palestinian peace contacts were set to resume after a halt of more than a year. U.S. envoy George Mitchell will mediate the indirect talks.

Palestinians see the more than 120 Israeli settlements dotting the West Bank as an obstacle to their goal of a state and insist that construction there must stop.

However, about 23,000 Palestinians work in the settlements, an important source of income when nearly a quarter of the Palestinian labor force is out of work. Replacing the jobs would exact a heavy burden on the already shaky Palestinian economy.

The anti-settlement law, signed last week by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, imposes fines of up to $14,000 and jail time of up to five years on violators. Soon after, Palestinian officials acknowledged it could not be implemented right away.

“I may not be able to place Palestinian police or a judge at the gates of the settlements, but I think that every single Palestinian working in a settlement is well known to us,” Abu Libdeh said.

Israeli officials have criticized the new law.

So far, Palestinians officials say they have confiscated about $5 million worth of settlement goods, hoping to replace them with Palestinian-made products.

“If we manage to double the share of local products in the consumer basket … we will be able to create at least 60,000 jobs,” Abu Libdeh said.

Also Tuesday, fires ripped through a mosque and an olive grove in two West Bank villages, and local Palestinians accused Jewish settlers of deliberately setting the blazes, but the cause was uncertain.

The mosque fire took place early in the morning in the village of Luban a-Sharkiyeh, incinerating holy books and prayer carpets. Although there were no witnesses, Jibril al-Bakri, the Palestinian governor of Nablus, said it was an act of arson.

The mosque was under renovation, and Israeli media said an electrical short circuit might have caused the blaze.

Village Mayor Jamal Daraghmeh said settlers had attacked village property in the past.

Israeli police said evidence had been transferred to its forensics department.

Also, residents of the nearby village of Hawara said they saw settlers set fire to an olive grove close to the Jewish settlement of Bracha. The fire destroyed about 50 trees before soldiers extinguished it.

“About 20 settlers came from the settlement and they set a fire here and then they left,” Rida Mustafa, a village resident who said he witnessed the attack, told The Associated Press.

Both Hawara and Luban a-Sharkiyeh, located near the city of Nablus, are ringed by settlements.

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