NILI SETTLEMENT, West Bank — In the hilltop Israeli settlement of Nili, a 44-year-old Palestinian mounts electrical fixtures onto freshly painted walls.
He is putting the finishing touches on the office of a real estate firm that will sell new homes in this Jewish settlement in the heart of the Palestinian West Bank. More Palestinian workers frame new houses just down the hill.
Tile by tile, beam by beam, they are among tens of thousands of Palestinians laboring illegally to help Israeli settlers colonize the very land these workers hope will be part of their future sovereign state.
“We have no work. If there was another work, we wouldn’t come here,” says Ziad Abu Nar as he hangs the front door of the new office.
With their traditional farming economy disrupted by the Israeli occupation and the unemployment rate above 30 percent, West Bank Arabs like Abu Nar are left with increasingly limited options for supporting themselves. Although billions of dollars in international aid have helped turn the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah into a boomtown, the average West Bank resident hasn’t benefited.
Abu Nar lives in the Arab village of Beit Ur al-Tahta, has three children and says work in the Arab villages is both scarce and poorly paid.
“If you want to buy anything — hummus, a sandwich — it is very expensive. If I make 50 shekels a day, I cannot afford life.”
While the wages are low, prices in the West Bank are not. A liter of milk costs 12 shekels ($3.15), electricity is substantially more expensive than in the US and fuel is nearly twice the price.
Settlement construction jobs pay substantially more than most of the other jobs available, said a 21-year-old named Issa who recently quit his job at a Palestinian food-packaging factory to work in the Nili settlement.
“It’s three times as much,” says Issa, cleaning the grout from between the recently laid floor tiles.
There are now nearly half a million Israeli settlers living in among 225 Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank, captured from Jordan by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. In 2011 alone, there were 1,850 new buildings started in the settlements.
Some Israelis come to the West Bank guided by the belief that God promised them land, but others move there for more earthly reasons: Cheap, suburban homes and discount living. Housing, taxes, buses and some goods are more affordable here than in urban centers like Tel Aviv.
These settlements occupy hilltops across West Bank, while in much of the territory Palestinians must ask Israeli authorities for permits to build their own homes.
Israel has relatively good legal protections for Israeli workers, but loopholes allow the exploitation of Palestinians in these settlements. Shawan Jabarin, director of Al Haq, a Palestinian rights organization, says Israeli settlers have often hired Palestinians using Jordanian labor law to avoid the worker protections offered under Israeli law — including minimum wage as well as health and employment benefits.
“These laborers have a big fear. They don’t want to speak about [abuses],” says Jabarin.
David Ha’Ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office, which advocates on behalf of Israeli settlers, says Palestinians do get the same rights as Israelis.
“All workers who work within Israeli communities are entitled to the same rights. Regardless of ethnicity,” says Ha’Ivri. He argues Israel is strict in enforcing labor law and that anyone suffering abuse should report it to the authorities.
The substantially higher wages offered by settlers, says Ha’Ivri, benefits Palestinian communities. “If the Israeli minimum wage is three times greater than the Palestinian, obviously it’s a benefit. It’s simple math,” says Ha’Ivri. “Which is why so many choose Israeli employers.”
While the Israeli courts have said settlers must respect rights of Palestinians workers, Eyal Hareuveni of the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, says, “there is nobody to enforce it … it has turned Palestinians into second-class citizens.”
More from GlobalPost: Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights
More than 100,0000 Palestinians —including Abu Nar — once legally entered Israel proper for work. With the outbreak of the second Intifada, and frequent attacks and suicide bombings by extremists against Israel, Abu Nar and thousands of other Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza had their permits cancelled.
Now many are given permits to work in Jewish settlements but are not allowed to enter Israel.
Israel replaced most of these Palestinian laborers with foreign workers primarily from Thailand, the Philippines and the former Soviet Union. It seemed like a quick, efficient fix, but now Israel is struggling to deport thousands of these workers — who want to stay in Israel — unable to simply send them back across the Green Line each night.