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Rising From the Ashes

Job creation program is helping to ease unemployment crisis for Palestinians

Movement-restricting curfews, endless waits at military checkpoints and the collapse of the tourist industry are separate but equal crises fueling Palestinian unemployment.

Increasingly, large numbers of Palestinian laborers who had been working on construction projects in Israel or, ironically, in Israeli settlements inside the West Bank and Gaza have been unable to hold onto their jobs. Work relations between Palestinians and Israelis have long been uneasy, but since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in September 2000, the employment crisis has worsened – leaving up to 70 percent of Palestinians unemployed.

Also, directly resulting from the violence sparked by the occupation, and in spite of the recent redeployment of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from the center of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, hotels once filled with pilgrims and tourists now stand empty.

Needing only skeleton crews who attend a trickle of visitors, jobs in tourism, the area’s main income-generating industry, have all but disappeared.

Recently, however, an innovative job creation program has started paying small but greatly needed wages to some Palestinians who have been out of work and almost out of hope.

Mail order invitation. Sifting through the mail one day last spring, Rhoda David noticed an unexpected letter.

“At first, I didn’t understand what it was,” said Ms. David, Director of Bethlehem’s House of Hope for the Blind and Mentally Handicapped.

While sipping from a tiny cup of Turkish coffee in the agency’s front office, Ms. David said the letter came from the Program Development Department of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem – an organization Ms. David knows well.

The letter was an invitation to leaders of community-based organizations to join in something called a labor intensive community development program. The goal of the program was to fund projects in the Bethlehem area that would create jobs for local workers while enriching and healing the community. Step one was to attend a training session in Bethlehem.

“I made two copies of the letter and passed them to an engineer and our accountant. I told them, ‘Let’s go and see what this is all about,’ ” said Ms. David.

What followed was the public debut of a program nearly three years in the making. With the creation of the jobs program, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, CNEWA’s operating arm in the Middle East, began collaborating to fund some 30 projects in the area. The projects are highly varied – from the refurbishing of a scouts campground to converting a house into a craft center to road reconstruction. Yet each fits the principles of the program. Projects must be labor-intensive rather than capital or material-intensive. They must also create value for the community by raising quality of life, by bolstering the tourism infrastructure in a town like Bethlehem or by spurring future jobs.

With its spring 2003 launch, the jobs program set out to lend support to new projects in and around Bethlehem. Yet, in a climate where few people expected to find funding, there was a vacuum of project proposals. So George Ghattas and his team at the Latin Patriarchate’s Program Development Department in Bethlehem realized they would not only need to fund the projects, but also help develop the project proposals. Of the 53 letters sent to various community-based organizations, Mr. Ghattas hoped about half would prepare proposals and, of those, 8 or 12 would have needs that could be addressed in a labor intensive way.

The target is for 80 percent of funds to go to labor and 20 percent for materials. In the end, 27 of the community-based organizations invited to submit project ideas did so and, of these, Mr. Ghattas said 18 may actually receive financial support.

In addition to merely funding projects, however, the job creation program has taken on the task of training community organizations to assess their needs and to prepare proposals, something many have little or no experience doing.

CNEWA has gathered $1.5 million in funding for the program to be distributed over a three-year period. It has additional funds for its training center where those applicants whose projects were not chosen to receive financial aid will receive help in improving their proposals for the future.

The same night she received her invitation, Ms. David joined her colleagues at a training session.

“The lecturer asked us if we knew what this was about. No one knew,” she said. “But with every sentence he said, I was waiting for the next and the next. The information was really beneficial.”

Shortly after, Ms. David and her staff underwent an evaluation so the community developers could better understand the needs of the House of Hope. The assessment team uncovered myriad needs but decided to focus on two. First they recommended the House of Hope consolidate the school operations – which are scattered among living quarters for the blind, for example – into one physical area. And they suggested creating two separate offices for the school’s speech and occupational therapists.

Economic and human fallout. Some two and a half years earlier, the labor intensive community development program was nothing more than a notion in the minds of a few of the Holy Land’s Catholic leaders. Job creation was thought of as a good way to support those in need without destroying self-esteem.

Mill Hill Father Guido Gockel, CNEWA’s and Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Palestine, Israel and Cyprus, based in the Old City of Jerusalem, observed the economic and human fallout of the unemployment crisis.

The effervescent white-haired priest, his gray shirt loosened at the top allowing his white collar to jut out casually, reflected on the eruption of violence that came with the intifada.

“Within the first week, we had requests from church leaders to come to the immediate aid of the people,” recalled Father Gockel. “A month into the intifada, the shooting and bombardment in the Bethlehem area started. So, at that point, we decided we needed to show the people in the area we were there.”

Father Gockel and others from his office in Jerusalem embarked on a breakneck schedule to visit residents of Bethlehem and nearby towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. In the first month alone, they visited some 400 homes in the area, giving emergency cash grants.

But by January 2001, Father Gockel realized that simple handouts of money and food could not last indefinitely. He also knew that a handout – especially in the Arab culture of the Palestinian territories was creating problems even as it sought to ease the crisis.

Father Gockel also realized the food deliveries were creating problems, not only by hurting the pride of some people but also by consolidating earnings in the hands of only a few in the food distribution business.

A collaboration between CNEWA and the Latin Patriarchate seemed a natural one. Each had been involved in creating projects to foster development in the occupied territories.

During 2001, the two entities began cooperating to address the needs of the greater Bethlehem region.

Mr. Ghattas said the community developer’s mandate is to design programs that create as many jobs for as many people as possible. “Suppose we were building a retaining wall,” he said. “A labor intensive approach would be to arrange for the concrete to be mixed by hand rather than by machine. The cost is the same but, by doing it this way, we are creating work for 20 laborers instead of just one supplier.”

At a nearby construction site, several workers are building just such a retaining wall, one that allows for the widening of a dangerous road leading to a decaying social center. Mousa Ahmad is perched on the skeleton of what will be that wall.

“I have been unemployed for almost two years,” said Mr. Ahmad as he prepares the structure for concrete.

In a fashion typical of job creation projects, Mr. Ahmad will work for two weeks on this three-month project, earning about $20 per day, before being replaced by another worker also needing income. This project will employ two carpenters, two steel fixers and three assistants throughout its duration. But the wall also creates additional job opportunities, for example, for drivers of the bulldozers that prepared the site and drivers of the trucks delivering supplies.

Hard times. Bethlehem – once 95 percent Christian and now only 35 percent – has been the target of several IDF incursions since September 2000. City of Bethlehem figures show that, prior to 2000, Bethlehemites earned $2,500 annually per capita. That figure has been reduced to only $500 due to the loss of employment opportunities outside the city as well as the almost total evaporation of tourism in the city of Christ’s birth. In more peaceful times, Bethlehem saw 1.2 million visitors per year. Today that figure is only about 4,000 per month. For a city that has relied predominantly on tourism, this amounts to a 96 percent reduction in visitor-generated revenue.

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser has the uneasy task of trying to stretch the city’s tiny $3 million budget – hobbled by the inability to collect taxes from unemployed citizens – to provide services for a city of 45,000 with great needs.

“The moment the people have no work, a very difficult situation emerges,” said the mayor who reported that Bethlehem’s 180 municipal workers have not been paid in months. “We need to help families pay for their minimum needs and to help defuse the tensions we have in the city due to lack of work. And we need to give them hope. The labor intensive projects are good. We like them. But we need more projects and larger projects.”

In his office in Bethlehem’s main square, sitting across from a nearly life-size poster of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Mayor Nasser takes a call from a community leader from Wadi al Nar, or Hell Road, a notorious trouble spot. After the call, Mayor Nasser explained, “He was telling me that 100 cars have been stopped at a checkpoint on the road to Ramallah. They have been there since last night and no one is being let through.”

But in spite of these kinds of continual crises that the mayor can do little about, he hopes to see the labor intensive projects focus on some of Bethlehem’s most banal but vital issues.

“We would like to see the rehabilitation of the garbage collection system,” he said. “This is our first priority. I want visitors to Bethlehem to go onto the roof of a house and be able to look down on a clean city. If you do that now, you see only how much garbage there is in the streets. In this way, you give a lot of work to everyone because cleaning the Old City must be done manually. You cannot do it with trucks because the roads are so narrow.”

The city of Bethlehem has already received two very small grants for sanitation but more, he said, is needed.

“We would also like to repair sidewalks so people might actually walk on them. And we need to rehabilitate our streetlight network. During the night, you cannot walk in some streets because most of our cables were uprooted by Israeli tanks.”

According to Mayor Nasser, the overwhelming majority of the city’s needs come from the $5 million in damage he said was inflicted during IDF incursions into Bethlehem.

Work opportunities. At a dusty construction site snarled in steel, rock and lumber, workers are beginning to build eight new shops in the central market of the Bethlehem region. The project, which uses a $150,000 grant from CNEWA, will create storefronts for the sale of foodstuffs, a commodity that still has a reliable consumer base. Because the project calls for new construction rather than refurbishing or renovation, it manages only to allocate 50 percent of its budget toward labor. Nonetheless, the four-month project employs some 13 workers each day, or 2,400 “workday opportunities” (one day of work for one worker).

In recent years, throughout the Bethlehem region, several other job creation projects have already been undertaken. Work is under way to renovate a cistern for an olive-pressing plant. A verdant community park has been built. Trees have been planted. A house is being converted into a historical museum. It is a warm climate in which the young CNEWA-funded jobs program can grow.

The most immediate challenge for the program, for CNEWA and for the Latin Patriarchate’s Development Department, is ensuring community-based organizations in the Bethlehem region actually understand what they are trying to do.

And so far, so good. From the elderly woman who wandered down to the retaining wall job site to applaud visiting CNEWA representatives to the workers on the job to community leaders like Ms. David at the House of Hope, the response of the community has been very positive, especially for Ms. David.

In 2003, the jobs program accepted one part of the House of Hope’s original proposal. In 2004, walls will be knocked down as part of the renovation and repartitioning of two offices to be used for the institution’s speech therapist and occupational therapist. And the new space will be tiled and painted.

As for the other part of the House of Hope’s proposal – to consolidate the schoolrooms – it is back to the training center to better define the project for future consideration.

Ben Cramer is a journalist and radio producer living in New York City.

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