Rising From the Ashes

Community work projects bring jobs and dignity to Palestinians

text by Ben Cramer
photographs by Peter Lemieux

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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.

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Tags: Jerusalem Israel Employment Occupation