Israeli-Palestinian Trade Suffers

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) -- The sun had just begun to rise over the mountains of this Palestinian city as the truck carrying jeans destined for the drawers of Israeli women began the arduous journey to Tel Aviv.

The trip should take an hour and a half. But the Palestinian driver did not have a permit through an Israeli military checkpoint and the X-ray machine at a crossing was broken, so the jeans arrived 8 1/2 hours later.

During a visit this weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hopes to get Israel to ease some of these security restrictions and allow freer travel of West Bank merchandise and businesspeople.

Israeli-Palestinian trade helps build a strong Palestinian economy, which the United States considers essential to getting the sides to sign a peace deal by the end of the year.

Merchants from both sides say such partnerships are ideal: Israeli clothing shops need cheap labor and West Bank Palestinians need the work. But Israeli and Palestinian businesses are working together less these days because of distrust and ongoing violence.

Israel agreed this week to issue more permits for Palestinian laborers and merchants, but has yet to take down any of the hundreds of West Bank checkpoints it says are necessary to stop suicide bombers.

With little real progress on the peace front and violence persisting, Israeli-Palestinian business ties are discouraged.

"No one wants to do this work anymore," said the Palestinian driver of the jeans truck, Azmi Suleiman, as he maneuvered around ruts and potholes on a poorly maintained backroad Thursday to avoid the Israeli checkpoint because he had no permit.

Suleiman, 40, has been working in the Israeli-Palestinian clothing business since he left his Nablus home at 13 to work in Tel Aviv unloading truckloads of West Bank-made clothing to help support his family. For years he slept on Tel Aviv's streets, until suicide bombings began in the late 1990s and Israel began restricting the flow of Palestinian laborers into the country.

The once-flourishing textile trade between Israel and the Palestinians shrank sharply as many Israeli companies stopped doing business with the West Bank.

Cheap Chinese goods offered an attractive alternative to Palestinian merchandise, which faced delivery delays or bans because of security concerns.

Trade with the Palestinians isn't significant for Israel, whose economy dwarfs its Palestinian counterpart. Israeli exports to the Palestinian areas total about $500 million a year, out of a total of $35 billion, said Dan Catarivas, who oversees international trade at the Israel Manufacturers' Association.

Israel, which imports vegetables and clothing from the Palestinians, and exports soft drinks and cement, "can totally turn its back on the Palestinian economy," Catarivas said.

But for the Palestinians, the ties are vital.

"The whole environment gives our traders limited choices," Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah said Friday. "Even if they want to buy and sell with the rest of the world ... they feel it is more feasible to work with Israeli traders" because travel restrictions make exporting elsewhere too prohibitive.

The distrust that has deepened over the years has not ebbed with the renewal in November of peace talks with the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. There is virtually no trade with the Gaza Strip since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the area in fighting last year.

But although Israel doesn't need the Palestinian market, it cannot afford to let poverty grow in the Palestinian areas because of the instability it could create, said Ephraim Kleiman, an economist involved in past peace talks with the Palestinians.

"Israel has an interest in not having hungry neighbors," Kleiman said. "Israel has a vested interest in the economic well-being of the Palestinians. It's much more important than any moral obligation."

Suleiman said he misses the streets of Tel Aviv. Few Palestinians will ever know Israel as well as he did when he could work there freely, he said.

"I never want to stop this work, it's in my blood," Suleiman said, puffing on a cigarette as he waited at the crossing for four hours while his truck was checked by hand because the X-ray machine was broken. "But Israelis just care about security, not about economics."

Asked by The Associated Press why Suleiman did not have a permit for the checkpoint, Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner insisted that he did. An hour later, the army called to tell Suleiman to pick up authorization papers on Sunday, the Palestinian merchant said, adding that a week ago the army had refused to grant the permit.

At the same crossing, Israeli clothing designer Irit Levzohar was picking up women's pants and shirts from her Palestinian supplier.

Levzohar said her business, Irit-Alon Clothing, would fold without the Palestinian seamstresses who accept less pay than Israelis. But a harrowing incident made her thankful for the Israeli security.

Once, when she made the trip to the West Bank herself, she discovered a stack of guns after she pulled her bags of clothing out of a Palestinian driver's truck.

"I began to shake all over and I dropped the bags," Levzohar said. "All I could think about was my children."

She confronted her Palestinian supplier, who promised never to work with that driver again, and reported the incident to the Israeli military. Now Levzohar says she only picks up clothes at authorized crossings.

"You can't gamble for business," Levzohar said.

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