Market Trader in Tulkarem

Ibrabim Rashid Ali, a Tulkarem market trader

Ibrahim Rashid Ali, a market trader in Tulkarem, says “every time you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse.” He is referring to the decision by Western governments to cut off funds to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA). 32% of Palestinians are dependent on PA salaries (1 million people). And in Tulkarem these public employers like teachers, health workers, police, have the last steady source of income in a town still reeling from the economic effects of the second intifada. The knock-on for shopkeepers and the informal economy is already being felt.Tulkarem is a once prosperous market town of 80,000 inhabitants, the hub of the fertile agricultural area in the north west of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Tulkarem inhabitants have suffered the Israeli Occupation much as the rest of Palestinians over the decades but food and work have always been available. Many had jobs in Israel. And Israelis came to the market, to get their cars mended, and generally shop cheaply for locally produced goods and services. Contact with Israel was fluid. The 2000 Al Aqsa intifada, Israel’s building of the illegal Separation Barrier in 2003, and the Israeli Army’s paralysing restrictions on the movement of people and goods (known as closure) has changed all that. The economy has collapsed.

Tukarem market

ulkarem market

The market is still full of agricultural produce and goods. Ibrahim’s stall has locally produced tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, herbs, etc. The problem is that few people can buy. He says “nobody has any money, people are already selling their wives’ jewellery, TVs, electrical goods to buy food.” To add to market woes, much of produce now comes from Israel because distribution problems have made Palestinians products uncompetitive. The capacity of local farmers to produce has been affected by the routing of the Separation Barrier that has dug deep into the West Bank in this area and cut many villages off from their land. Access to land through the agricultural gates is hampered by restricted opening hours, not opening at all for ‘security reasons’ and Israeli festivals, limited and arbitrary permit giving, and just plain harassment. So much so that villages like Qaffin, north of Tulkarem, now receive World Food Programme aid instead of farming surplus produce to sell.

Ibrahim sees the West’s rejection of Hamas as just another example of pro-Israeli bias. “Hamas may not be the government the West wants but it is a true example of democracy,” he says. People in Tulkarem were surprised by the result but they were even more surprised that it was unacceptable to the same governments who encouraged them in their first steps to democracy. They fail to see why they should be punished while the West ignores flagrant violations of international law by their powerful neighbour. Why are they not persuading Israel to stop their illegal Occupation which is at the root of Palestinian economic problems and the biggest obstacle to peace? Ibrahim says that if Hamas is forced out of office it might rally Palestinians behind them even more.

More immediately in a town like Tulkarem withdrawing PA funding could tip the victims of a man made disaster (the Separation Barrier) over the brink into real hunger. The suggested channelling of aid through NGO’s rather than the PA itself, may keep some Palestinians from starving, but it is likely to undermine rather than encourage the effective government they so need and deserve. February salaries from the PA were eventually paid in Tulkarem on March 17th but had been spent in advance. Nobody knows when March salaries will come since banks have stopped standing orders to PA employees. Hamas has declared the coffers empty. The only other sources of money in Tulkarem are the aid agencies and remittances from abroad. With the local economy in free fall, Ibrahim says “Only Allah can help us now.”