The economy of this Palestinian village depended on Israel. The checkpoint was then closed

NILIN, WEST BANK — Count the rings of olive trees that fill Mohammed Moussa's land in the West Bank village of Nilin: They have been here centuries before a Palestinian family's livelihood depended on the whims of the Israeli occupation.

When Israel established a checkpoint near the Mousas Land a decade ago, the family turned their ancestral farm into a parking lot for Palestinian workers entering Israel.

But the site has been vacant since October 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip. Israel has barred Palestinian workers from the West Bank from entering Israel for fear of further attacks.

In the fifth month of the war, the family is without savings, paying off debts to supermarkets and selling heirlooms to put food on the table.

„I sold my mother's gold, my phone, my bicycle,” Moussa said. „There's nothing to sell yet.”

Israel's campaign in Gaza has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, unleashed an unimaginable humanitarian crisis and devastated the strip's economy. But Israel's complete severing of economic ties with the West Bank has also had dire consequences for Palestinians there.

Economists and Palestinian officials say the region faces a worsening economic crisis that also weakens the Palestinian Authority, which governs pockets of autonomy in the West Bank. Under the interim peace accords of a generation ago, the Self-Government was intended to expand and eventually host a future Palestinian state.

The fallout of Israel's decision is well felt in Nilin. Before October, more than 10,000 Palestinian workers crossed the checkpoint there to Israeli construction sites and farms. Israeli shoppers used the crossing to enter the West Bank.

According to the Israeli labor hotline Kav LaOved, 200,000 Palestinians worked in Israel and Israeli settlements before the war. The jobs pay more than what is available on the West Bank.

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The checkpoint gate is now locked, monitored by armed Israeli guards in a nearby watchtower.

Alaa Mousa, 38, who grew up in Nilin as part of the extended Mousa family, crossed the checkpoint every day for 10 years to work at a construction site in Israel. After October 7, he said he looked for a similar job in the West Bank, but no one was hiring. With two children to feed, she now relies on the goodwill of nearby supermarkets.

But even those shops with signs in both Arabic and Hebrew are struggling. On the streets of Nilin, Israelis flocked from nearby towns and settlements in search of cheaper prices for everything from groceries to car repairs.

„We don't know how long we can keep the doors open,” said Schroer, who has seen four neighboring stores close since October. „We've been here since 1996, but we've never seen anything like this.”

A third of the village's 6,400 residents used to work in Israel, and all lost their jobs after Oct. 7, according to municipal official Nidal Khawaja. A fifth of the village's university students are unable to pay their tuition fees and have delayed their semesters. The city's business revenue has dropped by 40%.

According to the World Bank, Nilin's reality is true across the West Bank, where a third of workers are now unemployed, up from 13% before the war. Salaries for government employees have been slashed, and intermittent closures of military checkpoints have crippled trade.

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Israel operates 400 checkpoints in the region, with the Palestinian Ministry of Economy turning short delivery trips into hours-long trips. If checkpoints are closed, trucks may also be blocked. Israel says the restrictions are a security measure.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Economy, the Palestinian economy in the West Bank shrank by more than a fifth in the last quarter of 2023. A third of businesses in the region closed or reduced production and a third lost their jobs. The daily loss would be $25 million.

„There is no question if there is a crisis,” said Khawaja, the Nilin official. „The crisis is already here.”

The crisis is exacerbated by the inability of the Palestinian Authority, the region's largest employer, to pay full salaries. Under interim peace agreements in the 1990s, Israel collects tax revenue on behalf of the Palestinians and transfers it to the Palestinian Authority. Since October, Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smodrich has suspended transfers to Gaza, prompting the Palestinian Authority to refuse to accept any money.

The US has repeatedly urged Israel to release the funds, but to no avail.

Last week, the PA said it would transfer 60% of December salaries to workers – a month late.

„If the financial crisis of the Palestinian Authority continues, it will lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority,” Palestinian Economy Minister Khalid al-Esseili told The Associated Press.

„If paying salaries is the Palestinian Authority's essential survival plan, that too may collapse because the situation demands more than that,” Khalidi said.

The crisis comes as the US doubles down on calls for a „revitalized PA” to govern a post-war Palestinian state, starting with the West Bank and Gaza.

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Israeli media reported last week that authorities are considering a plan to allow workers from the West Bank over the age of 45 to return to Israel, even though Israeli officials have said workers from Gaza will never enter Israel again.

The government has allowed some 8,000 Palestinians to return to work in Israeli settlements. But the future of the labor arrangement remains uncertain.

The Palestinian labor shortage has also affected Israel. Israel's finance ministry said in December that the economy is losing $830 million a month. As of December, half of Israel's construction sites were closed.

„The industry is completely at a standstill,” Raul Zarko, head of the Israeli Builders Association, told Israel's parliament in December. „There was no immediate alternative. The government made us familiar with Palestinian workers.”

Back in Nilin, Mohammad Moussa spoke of a time — before the checkpoint, before the parking lot — when his land wasn't barren.

There, his family raised chickens and pressed them into olive oil. It ended when checkpoint clashes erupted between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, sending clouds of tear gas over the family's land.

A court order is pending to demolish a poultry farm that Israel says he built illegally. Weeds now poke through the dusty grounds of the parking lot where his farm used to be.

„I hope the war in Gaza ends. That's my first wish,” he said. „Then, I hope the parking comes back.”

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Follow AP's coverage of the Israel-Hamas war at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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