Graduates scramble for better pay

Betlehem checkpoint 8 april 2018

Jaclynn Ashly & Alaa Daraghmeh

The Electronic Intifada  /  January 9, 2020

Even a college degree couldn’t help Fathi Taradi.

Taradi, 34, tried for a decade to find work as a journalist in the occupied West Bank. He eventually had to settle on construction work in Jerusalem.

“The first few days working in Israel, it felt like my heart was breaking because I gave up all of my dreams of being a journalist,” Taradi told The Electronic Intifada at his home in Taffuh, just west of Hebron.

Taradi is one of many Palestinian university graduates forced to seek menial work in Israel or its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem after abandoning hope of finding employment in their field.

He spent several years interning or working for low pay at local radio stations in the West Bank until, five years ago, he received an Israeli work permit.

“I never thought I would be working in Israel,” he says. “I had so many skills. I thought I would be a successful cameraman by now.”

At first, Taradi had to wake up at 3 am every day to travel to Checkpoint 300 north of Bethlehem, sometimes standing for hours with hundreds of other Palestinians penned in between concrete walls and metal bars, waiting for Israeli soldiers to unlock turnstiles and check the Israeli-issued permits that allow them to pass into Jerusalem.

He barely saw his four children.

Earlier last year, Israel “upgraded” Checkpoint 300, along with the Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah, creating more lanes and introducing automatic gates at which Palestinians tap biometric entry permits to pass.

The upgrade has made passing the military checkpoint quicker and more efficient, reducing to minutes what used to take hours. But it has done nothing to alter the fundamentals of a military occupation that has left educated Palestinians like Taradi struggling to find opportunities.

“I never lost my passion for media,” Taradi said. “If I had an opportunity to return to media, I would. I loved my job as a journalist.”

“It was for nothing”

According to Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of education, the Palestinian economy is incapable of absorbing university graduates because Israel does not allow “serious development and investment in Palestine.” The decades-long occupation has stifled the local economy, Saidam told The Electronic Intifada over the phone.

It has done so in many ways, and the suppression of the Palestinian economy as a consequence of the Israeli occupation is well documented.

Most obviously, the Israeli occupation and its settlement enterprise in the West Bank has confiscated large swaths of land, including more than 60 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C, where Palestinian development is largely prohibited but Israeli settlements expand with little restraint.

The some 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank use six times as much water as the 2.86 million Palestinians who live there. According to the Palestinian think-tank Al-Shabaka, the indirect cost of Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian access to water in the Jordan Valley, which has prevented Palestinians from properly cultivating their land, was $663 million, the equivalent of 8.2 percent of the Palestinian GDP in 2010.

Meanwhile, the wages in the West Bank are too low for many to survive.

According to the education ministry, the minimum monthly wage in the West Bank is $420 a month. But many in the private sector receive less than this.

Even if Taradi could find a full-time job at a local media station in the West Bank, it would only offer some $650 a month, he said, whereas his construction job in Jerusalem pays nearly $2,000.

Becoming a construction worker enabled Taradi to get married and build a three-bedroom home for his family – something that would be difficult to do on a West Bank salary.

“I feel like I wasted my time getting an education. All of it was for nothing,” he said.

Taradi’s experience is shared by many Palestinians who feel that they have gained little from their university degrees. Some earned academic degrees abroad, only to return to the West Bank and be unable to find work.

Suhair, Taradi’s wife, has been unemployed for eight years. The 31-year-old earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Hebron University in 2010 and has been attempting to find a job through the PA’s education ministry.

She attributes her unemployment not just to the lack of opportunities in the West Bank but also to a lack of wasta – an Arabic word referring to nepotism or the personal connections that smooth the way for individuals to secure employment or other opportunities.

Amir, a resident of Bethlehem who spoke on condition that his full name would not be used, received his master’s degree in sports education from Al-Quds University in 2008.

After years of struggling on a low salary at a West Bank public school, the father of four admitted defeat and sought construction work in Israel.

Amir, 32, also travels through Checkpoint 300 every day.

“It’s really painful to imagine that you spent years of your life [getting an education], just to stand at a checkpoint every morning to go to work,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

“But that’s the reality of life here,” he said. “We need to work to feed our children.”

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 127,000 Palestinians worked in Israel and in the settlements during 2018 – 5,000 more than in 2017.

More than half – 58 percent – of Palestinians between ages 18 to 29 who held an “intermediate diploma degree or above” were unemployed in 2018, compared with 41 percent a decade earlier.

These numbers were even higher among women graduates, 73 percent of whom were unemployed despite the increase in the number of female graduates over the past decade, according to the PA’s education ministry.

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the number of Palestinian graduates steadily increased. Education ministry statistics show that in 2017-2018 about 94 percent of men and 71 percent of women between the ages of 20-24 were enrolled or had obtained an intermediate degree or higher.

An intermediate degree refers to a qualification obtained after high school but not at university level.

Despite this increase in the number of Palestinian graduates, the Palestinian economy remains stymied by Israel’s occupation, leaving graduates without opportunities in their fields.

The lack of opportunities coupled with low wages in the West Bank, incentivize many Palestinian graduates to seek work abroad or in Israel and its settlements, a brain-drain that minister Saidam said deprives the Palestinian economy of its skilled citizens.

“They want us to hate ourselves”

Bahaa Salah, 30, earned his bachelor’s degree in Jordan and continued his studies in Malaysia, graduating with a master’s degree in communications and public relations.

When he returned in 2013 to his hometown of al-Eizariya, outside Jerusalem, he couldn’t find work in his field. He instead worked as a salesman at Sbitany – an electronics store in the West Bank – and then at an aluminum factory.

Salah then spent over a month in Dubai looking for work, without success, before he found an opportunity as an accountant at a spice factory in the West Bank. However, the pay, which he said was about $555 a month, was too low for him to live a decent life.

Salah decided to seek work at the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. It is part of Maaleh Adumim, a major Israeli settlement, where his cousin was already working. He found a job as a cleaner at a grocery store in 2014.

When Salah compares his life in Malaysia to that in the West Bank, his reaction is visceral.

“Imagine experiencing freedom for years, and then you come back to your home and suddenly you’re in a cage,” he said.

Things have deteriorated further for Salah since the 2015 wave of violence, also known as the lone-wolf or knife intifada. Before this, Salah said, the Israeli security guards at the settlement “weren’t so rough or mean.”

“We used to go through the checkpoint outside of Mishor Adumim with a car. No one would even stop us. If you had an Israeli work permit, you would just show it and drive in,” he said.

Now, though, Palestinians must receive special permission to bring their vehicles inside the settlement, he said.

“Everyone has to get out of the car, line up and the security guards check each person, one by one,” Salah said.

“I think they choose the most racist people to work at [this] checkpoint,” he said. “They treat you really roughly. So imagine if someone is in a bad mood and he’s already racist. He’s obviously not going to treat you well.”

Salah began feeling increasingly unsafe at his workplace as he noticed more and more Israeli customers with guns strapped to their shoulders. A number of Palestinians have been shot dead by armed Israelis after real or alleged attacks they were supposed to have been engaged in. Those Israelis have rarely faced legal consequences.

“I used to carry around a screwdriver for my job, but I started to become afraid to even put my hand on it because they [Israelis] were scared. When they looked at you, it would be like they were looking at a ghost or something,” Salah said.

Although his permit allows him to enter both the industrial zone and the residential area of Maaleh Adumim, the few times his boss sent him to the settlement to get products for the grocery store, Salah felt confused and scared, because the two areas have varying rules for Palestinians.

According to Salah, Palestinians are allowed to walk on the streets of Mishor Adumim, but are not allowed to do so in Maaleh Adumim. They are only allowed to enter as passengers in an Israeli car.

“This means that if the police catch me walking, they can cut my permit up and put me in jail – or at least blacklist me so I would never be able to get a permit again,” he said.

“They want you to hate yourself for being Palestinian,” Salah continued. “You have to go through this line, not that one. You have to walk on this street, not that one. It makes you feel like an alien. They make you think: ‘What’s wrong with me?’ It makes me sick.”

So why does he endure it? “Because of the money.”

Salah said that in the settlement he sometimes earns more than double what he could get in the Palestinian economy. “I work fewer hours, less days and I get paid better,” he said.

Despite his lack of opportunities, however, Salah refuses to believe his studies were a waste of time.

“For me, education is not just about getting a job. It’s about developing myself and learning more,” he said. “I’m still human – so I can’t help but compare my situation with that of others.”

For example, he said, he is better qualified to run the store he works in than his Israeli boss, but he knows that as a Palestinian with a West Bank ID card, he will never get such a position.

“Even some Israelis I work with who hear my story and know about my education tell me: ‘Man, if only you had a different ID, your life here could be really nice.’ But this is my fate,” Salah said. “There’s nothing I can do to change it.”

Jaclynn Ashly is a freelance journalist covering politics and human rights issues in occupied Palestinian territory and Israel

Alaa Daraghmeh is a journalist based in the West Bank