By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 12, 2006
BEIT IKSA, West Bank -- At the end of last month, a crowd gathered in the town hall here to take part in an unusual act. About 75 people, all employees of the Palestinian Authority, were getting paid.
Like the rest of the 150,000 Palestinian civil servants, the teachers, bureaucrats and policemen here had not received a paycheck for nearly two months, the result of a freeze in international aid following Hamas's victory in January legislative elections.
But this village has a patron, a native son who prospered in the United Arab Emirates. Although he has returned to his birthplace only a handful of times since leaving with his family following the 1967 Middle East war, over the years Zuhair Jubran has remembered his village in trying times, few more so than now.
With the government unable to make payroll, Jubran decided he would. Each public employee, including teachers from neighboring villages who work in Beit Iksa's boys and girls schools, has started receiving a monthly salary of $325 from Jubran's private accounts.
As their government withers without international aid, Palestinians are tailoring modest lives to desperate times. Bartering, borrowing and doing without, thousands of people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are improvising their way through a deepening financial crisis with help from native sons, virtual strangers and each other.
Government salaries directly or indirectly sustain roughly 1 million people in the occupied territories, and in places such as this one the money serves as the economic lifeblood of the community. Town officials say a majority of the village's roughly 2,000 people rely on Palestinian Authority salaries as their chief source of income.
"We'd reached a critical period when some people had nothing at all," said Anan Zayyed, 36, who teaches math and science at the Beit Iksa Girls Primary School, a small hillside campus with a view of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.
So the families who live here in old stone homes along one-lane streets are paring back spending, selling off assets and heirlooms, running up large tabs at corner markets and worrying about the weeks ahead. Construction sites sit abandoned, vegetable markets are empty.
But now, the people here say, a new set of social rules is taking hold.
A family with enough money to prepare a large dinner one night will share a dish or two with neighbors. Taxi drivers decline to collect fares. Civil servants with other sources of income -- grown children, usually, in other parts of the world -- ask that their monthly payments from Jubran be given to those who need it more.
"We're like a role model, an example for nearby villages," said Bages Muhesen, 70, the bespectacled head of the town council. "But we have someone to help, and the others do not."
In this village set among terraced hillsides a few miles north of Jerusalem, there is a palpable anger toward Israel and the United States, which they blame most for their impoverishment.
Western donors have called on Hamas, a radical Islamic movement, to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previously signed agreements as a condition for a renewal of aid. Hamas leaders, in turn, have called on Israel to end the occupation of land Palestinians envision as their future state in return for a long-term truce.
Hamas and the secular-nationalist Fatah party that lost power in January roughly divided the vote here. But there is a growing solidarity behind Hamas, which began running the Palestinian government ministries six weeks ago.
"This is a new government, and to be honest, I just don't know whether to blame them or not," said Ahmed Ghaith, 38, who drives a collective taxi in the village. "Everybody is against them, and to me it seems like they haven't been given a chance. This is Israel's fault."
On his dashboard, Ghaith keeps a red clipboard, a new tool of the trade. Pages of lined paper bear names, dates, trips and sums -- a ledger of the debt accrued over the past two months that amounts to $2,200.
He stopped charging Palestinian government employees, many of whom must make long morning commutes to Ramallah at a cost that has become prohibitively expensive without an income to justify it. "Some people here are still making money," Ghaith said. "So we take it from them and put diesel in the car so I can keep going."
That seemingly simple task is becoming more complicated. At a filling station a few miles west of the village, fuel reserves are running dry.
Dor Energy, the private Israeli supplier of fuel to the Palestinian Authority, has ceased deliveries because of $26 million in unpaid debt. Rani, the station attendant, said he had gasoline to last through the weekend. His diesel, however, would likely not survive the day, he said.
"Then I'll turn off the lights and go home," said Rani, 24, who would give only his first name.
Rationing has begun. A white Renault van pulled in for a fill-up, and Rani told the driver he could have a quarter of his request.
"I guess I'll just park my car and stop working," said Mohammed Ayash, 20, a school janitor who uses the van to get from campus to campus. "What else should I do?"
Jubran, the village benefactor, still owns a house here. His cousin, Abdelkareem Ajaj, said that Jubran's last visit was in 1995 and that he divides his time between the U.A.E. and Jordan. Ajaj said Jubran, who could not be reached for comment, is involved in the stock market, perhaps as a large investor in publicly traded companies.
Over the years, he has provided funds to pave the streets, add classrooms and send village students to study overseas. The girls' school here sends him regular requests for funds, written on Palestinian Authority letterhead. One, bearing a March date, seeks money for new laboratories and a library.
Since the economic squeeze began, Jubran has started a $1,000 scholarship for the schools' top students as an incentive to continue their education at a time when many are feeling pressure to find work and help support their families. The village's economic straits have become a point of discussion in the busy school courtyards.
Abdulrahman Mahmoud, a ninth-grader at the boys school that Jubran attended, said he and his classmates talk about what they will buy once their parents get paid again. His daily 50-cent allowance, which is enough for candy and popsicles at the corner market, has disappeared.
"My father is trying as much as he can to make it the same, but I know he owes a lot of money," said Mahmoud, one of six children in a household that depends on the salary his father earns as a teacher. "The situation will get worse as long as the world continues to punish us for our choice."
Behind him stood Jamal Ghaith, 46, who owns a cluttered grocery store the size of a large pantry at the village's only intersection. Ghaith, brother of the taxi driver, said his business has fallen 70 percent in the past two months. He has extended more than $10,000 in credit.
"Two months more and most of the shops will close down," Ghaith said. "Me, I won't have any money to buy merchandise."
After the village's public employees were paid April 25 through Jubran's generosity, a line formed outside his tiny store as people arrived to pay off portions of their balances.
"It helps for a certain period of time," Ghaith said. "But everyone's priority here when they get money is for their children, keeping them in school supplies and food, not paying off debts to grocery stores."