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More Palestinians find Israeli work despite conflict

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Nilin (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Economic growth in Israel and chronic unemployment in the occupied West Bank is seeing more Palestinians cross to the "enemy" side seeking work.

The numbers have almost doubled in five years and even another right wing victory in Tuesday's elections is unlikely to change that.

"All the governments came and went and we went to work, whether with a permit or by smuggling," 58-year-old construction worker Naji Mohammed said.

He has been working in Israel for nearly 20 years to support his nine-member family.

"No government has affected our work."

In the late afternoon at the Nilin checkpoint, west of the West Bank city of Ramallah, salesmen flog goods to the hundreds of Palestinians returning from a day's work.

Most didn't want to talk politics for fear of jeopardising their permits.

Israel occupied the West Bank in a 1967 war.

More than 400,000 Israelis now live in the territory with roughly 2.7 million Palestinians, living in settlements considered illegal under international law.

The Jewish state began construction of a barrier cutting off the West Bank during the violence of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and Palestinians need an Israeli permit to cross.

In 2015, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a government seen as the most rightwing in Israel's history, around 45,000 Palestinians had Israeli work permits, according to official Palestinian figures.

Four years on that number is around 85,000, the overwhelming majority from the occupied West Bank.

Tens of thousands of others have permits to work in Israeli settlements or sneak into Israel and work illegally, Palestinian officials estimate.

Israelis see the arrangement as a win-win. Palestinian officials accuse the Jewish state of suppressing their economy and sucking up their labour to cut costs.

- $50 more -

Israel did not confirm the exact figures, but said the number of permits for employment in Israel had risen 160 percent since 2012.

Buffeted by strong economic growth in recent years, Israel has seen a boost in demand for affordable labour, particularly in construction.

Workers typically earn between $70 and $100 per day working in Israel or in settlements, compared to just $20-$30 with Palestinian companies, workers told AFP.

With unemployment rates in the West Bank at around 18 percent, according to the World Bank, the revenue is vital for many families.

Working inside Israel was for a long time controversial for Palestinians, viewed as accepting Israeli occupation, but has become more normalised in recent years.

Employment in settlements in the West Bank, however, remains a taboo, with Palestinians typically wary of publicly admitting such employment.

Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, with rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking a sixth term.

Yousef al-Naasan, 63, does fear a far-right Israeli government.

"I have concerns. There are some parties, especially from the Israeli right, with demands and opinions which affect the status of Palestinian workers," he said.

Rami Mahdawi, a senior official at the Palestinian Labor Ministry, was sceptical.

He said the Israeli occupation of the West Bank undermined the Palestinian economy, forcing people to seek work in Israel.

"The first and last beneficiary of the (Palestinian) labour force is Israel."

- Win win? -

An Israeli defence official told AFP the country had invested 300 million shekels ($85 million, 77 million euro) in recent years to develop the crossings and speed up Palestinian entry into Israel.

Waiting times at the checkpoints, spread along the barrier between the West Bank and Israel, had been cut from around 30 minutes to only a few, he said.

The employees' salaries helped the Palestinian economy and contributed to calm in the West Bank, the scene of regular tensions, he said.

"Palestinian labour is a win-win for both sides," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Palestinian economic analyst Nasr Abdel Karim said Israel had experimented with foreign workers and concluded Palestinians were cheaper and more reliable.

"All future or previous Israeli governments believe that facilitating the entry of Palestinian workers into its market is a security need."

Palestinians from the West Bank cannot vote in Tuesday's elections.

Crossing back from Nilin, 28-year-old Yousef al-Halhouli said he expected only minor disruption.

"They can vote as they want. Maybe we will stop for one or two days for the election."

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