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Palestinian Women in East Jerusalem Struggle to Escape Poverty

Many Palestinian women living in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem want to work. But their search for jobs is often blocked by slow bureaucracy, impossible demands and lack of support.

Written by Miriam Berger Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Women stand in line for the check-in station at the Israeli Employment Office for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Around 85 percent of Palestinian women living in East Jerusalem are unemployed. Miriam Berger

EAST JERUSALEM – Radia Salhout, 36, dreads Tuesdays. That’s when she rises extra early in her small house in Jabal Mukabar, a poor, tough part of Palestinian East Jerusalem. After making sure all is set for her teenage son’s day, she rides a bus that snakes through the hills, then gets off and walks to another bus stop. There she meets up with other unemployed women who, like her, are headed to the Israeli Employment Office for Palestinians. There’s no direct bus, so they wait for an informal shared taxi driven by a man with a car looking to make extra money.

Once Salhout reaches the guarded, pale-stone complex of the Interior Ministry that houses the employment services, she huddles in line at the outdoor check-in station to register using her fingerprint. Then she pushes through the gated entrance to where men and women wait, packed together, for security to inspect their papers, bags and bodies. Once through, Salhout waits in a room for her name to be called. When it is, she meets briefly with a representative of Israel’s Employment Office to prove in person that she’s looking for work so she can receive social security benefits.

Salhout is lucky to speak some Hebrew along with Arabic, unlike most impoverished Palestinian women. Nonetheless, the rules regarding worker’s rights are confusing and opaque: She’s been exploited at several jobs before. And when the clerk at the employment bureau does offer her work, it’s often physically taxing jobs like cleaning that aren’t suitable, given her bad back. So she often has to turn work down, which means her benefits are cut for two months. In the meantime, she has to keep coming back to the Employment Office every week.

“I don’t refuse work,” she tells Women & Girls. “I want work. I love work. Give me honorable work. Give me work that I respect myself in.”

Salhout is one of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinian women caught in a cycle of unemployment and poverty, with all kinds of hurdles impeding their way out. Women face layers of pressures from Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem’s limited access to education, work and future prospects, compounded by patriarchal social norms that restrict opportunities inside and outside the home.

Between 75-80 percent of the 360,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line and around 85 percent of women and 40 percent of men are unemployed, according to the most recent figures from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Only 11 percent of East Jerusalem women are in the workforce, but the term broadly includes those who have barely worked.

High unemployment and poverty rates are symptomatic of Israel’s “systematic neglect of East Jerusalem,” says Ronit Sela, director of human rights for the occupied territories at ACRI. Yoav Tamir, an organizer with WAC Ma’an, one of the few Israeli labor organizations focused on this issue, also attributes the crisis to the current Israeli government’s stated goal of increasing the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.

“We know that the [Israeli] government wants to make Palestinian residents move out of East Jerusalem,” he says. “This is another way to do this: Don’t give them work.”

“The women are the first to be hurt by this situation,” he adds.

Last year, Salhout started coming to WAC Ma’an, which provides legal training, empowerment courses and Hebrew lessons. Now every Tuesday, she posts photos of the Employment Office conditions to a WhatsApp group started by WAC Ma’an organizer Rania Saleh, who is a go-to resource for the group’s female clients. Fellow organizer Tamir is hopeful that with WAC Ma’an’s legal help, Salhout will receive some compensation for one of the jobs she was wrongly fired from. Still, real structural changes need to be made to East Jerusalem’s political economy, he says – but that’s not happening as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues.

Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, a move the international community does not recognize, while Palestinians claim the east as the capital of their future state. The 1994 Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority within the semi-autonomous Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the latter now ruled by the militant group Hamas), but deferred the final status of Jerusalem to further, now stalled, negotiations. That means East Jerusalemite residents like Salhout have many of the same rights as Israeli citizens, but lack others like voting in general elections. And while Israel has declared East Jerusalem as part of its undivided capital, the Palestinian areas are plagued by infrastructural neglect and institutional underdevelopment – and an acute shortage of jobs.

Salhout started working as a seamstress at age 18 and married at 21 in a traditionally arranged marriage. Soon after, the abuse started. By 23 she was pregnant and demanded a divorce. Her husband lived in the West Bank, where life is cheaper, so she moved back in with her then disapproving mother while suffering through a difficult pregnancy, which left her with chronic back problems. She made sure to register her son in East Jerusalem to retain the coveted residency.

Over the years, she’s taken on various jobs to make ends meet, from working as a tailor in West Jerusalem to a mushroom farmer in an Israeli factory. In those days, she had to rise at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at work by 9 a.m. (without compensation for her travel time) and wouldn’t return until late in the evening. She’s never had good healthcare, and now her body aches in all different ways.

But the Employment Office clerks generally don’t consider factors such as physical constraints or travel logistics when assigning work – even though legally, they should, Tamir says. That’s a particular problem for Palestinians living in East Jerusalem communities like Kfar Aqab, which are cut off by the separation barrier and who need to cross the infamous Qalandia checkpoint just to reach work each morning. (The Employment Office has not responded to Women & Girls’ request for comment.)

As Salhout waits to find work, she takes comfort in art. She paints at home and fills her Facebook feed with posts she finds artistically clever or beautiful. She’d like to open her own female-focused art space or a kindergarten where children can learn and play while their mothers work. But there’s no way for her to get the money or the help she needs to make that happen. “I wish the Employment Office gave us support for things like this,” she says. For now, all she can do is keep rising extra early on Tuesdays.

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