The Beit Furik “industrial zone”
By June 19 I had given up waiting for Tbeili to come to us. I drove into the West Bank to visit his factory, a family business that’s been going for three generations. Sindyanna routinely meets with its producers, but when it comes to the Occupied Territories, nothing is routine. Luckily, the factory is in the industrial zone of Beit Furik. The word “luckily” may mislead, however. It has nothing to do with success or affluence, but only with the location: if the plant were north of the Beit Furik checkpoint, in the municipal bounds of Nablus, we would not be able to visit at all, nor could Tbeili get his soap to us in Israel.
The term “industrial zone” is also misleading. Ten family workshops are scattered among the terraces east of Beit Furik. The area was designated by the Palestinian Authority to be the crown jewel of its new economy. And here it is: one soap factory, another for animal feed, and a few that make cement blocks. That’s it. No sign at the entrance. No paved road. No telephone line. No connection to the water grid. Electricity supplied by Israel. This is what people once dreamed about as the Singapore of the Middle East.
On the factory roof are ten large water containers. The water costs 10 shekels per cubic meter (about $2.50), compared with 2.215 shekels at a factory in Israel. It is supplied by the local council of Beit Furik, which gets it from a well in the Beit Dajan valley. The nearby settlements of Itamar and Eilon Moreh are connected to a water pipe that skirts the Beit Furik Checkpoint. Before the Intifada of September 2000, the PA reached an agreement with Israel’s water company, Mekorot, to connect Beit Furik to this pipe. It even began building infrastructure. The Intifada stopped everything.
Four months ago Tbeili managed, at his own expense, to stretch a telephone line to the factory. In his non-air-conditioned office, he can phone, fax, send e-mails and surf the web. Things we take for granted seem miraculous here.
The PA began work on the industrial zone in the year 2000, before the Intifada, and Tbeili was the first to get a building license. He bought a plot for 70,000 shekels (about $17,000), a bargain then. He had just begun to build when the Intifada broke out. Only in 2005 did he manage to finish. He then transferred his production from Nablus to Beit Furik. Why did it take so long? Because until 2005, Beit Furik was closed to automobiles. Soldiers and rock heaps blocked the entrance, and only pedestrians could go out or in. In 2005, the “modern” Beit Furik checkpoint was opened, and at last motorists had access to the village.
Tbeili lives in Nablus, and his main problem is the checkpoints. They entrap the fluttering Palestinian economy like a spider web. To reach his factory, Tbeili first must pass the checkpoint of Beit Furik, east of Nablus. Here he can wait half an hour, two hours, three or all day, depending on the security situation.
At the Beit Furik checkpoint passage is permitted only to people with identity cards naming them as residents of Beit Furik or Beit Dajan. Nablus residents may cross only at one of three alternative checkpoints around the city: Hawara in the south, Beit Iba in the west, or Badan (near Taluza) in the north. Anyone who wants to pass through Beit Furik instead must possess two identity cards, one showing him as residing at Nablus, the other at Beit Furik.
Tbeili is joined at the factory each day by his father (76 years old) and A.S. (60), a father of four, who used to own his own soap factory in Nablus. Like many others, A.S. went out of business in the Intifada and became a worker. A refugee from the village of Sarafand near Ramle, A.S. works at Tbeili’s during the day and guards the place at night.
After Tbeili’s transition to Beit Furik, the workers from his Nablus plant could not get through the checkpoints. Most were from Salem, which Israel includes in the Nablus area. Today his employees are from Beit Furik and Beit Dajan, because here no checkpoints intervene. He employs six, all the sole breadwinners for their families. In the year 2000, he employed twice as many.
The reason, says Tbeili, is twofold: the roads are shut and people don’t have money. “Before the Intifada I sold 150-250 thousand shekels’ worth of soap per month, of which 100 thousand went to the Israeli market. Today I don’t reach 50 thousand, of which less than 20% goes to Israel. There are days when I don’t make more than 100 shekels.”
A drive on the main road from Beit Furik to Hawara takes less than ten minutes. It’s a beautiful road, winding through the hills, with outlooks over olive groves and plowed fields. Yet it is almost empty, for it is open to Israelis only. A Palestinian caught with his car on this road will be jailed and fined, if not shot first. A Beit Furik resident who wants to reach Hawara must instead drive to Nablus via the Beit Furik Checkpoint. From there he drives three kilometers to the Hawara Checkpoint. If he manages to get through, he may then reach his goal. A ten-minute drive has become a matter of hours.
A truck laden with goods, heading from Beit Furik toward any West Bank destination, is condemned to the same arduous route. The Hawara Checkpoint, south of Nablus, is the only one through which goods are allowed to leave the city, even if they are meant for addresses to the north or west.
When Israel is the destination, goods may only be shipped on trucks with Israeli plates, and only via the Anata Checkpoint northeast of Jerusalem. The drive from Nablus northward to Sindyanna’s plant near Nazareth used to take at most an hour and a half. Today, because the truck must first head south to Jerusalem, wait on line at checkpoints and then make its way on Israeli roads to the north, the drive lasts at least four hours. The immediate result is a hike in transportation costs. The price of a delivery from Nablus to Galilee has jumped from 300 shekels to 1200 with luck, not including the 90 shekel tax at Anata.
All this spells economic distress. In Nablus it has led to a level of chaos never known before: thefts, extortion of protection money, and break-ins have become routine. Young criminals erect makeshift roadblocks, stop the drivers and take whatever there is. “I don’t go with more than a hundred shekels in my pocket,” says Tbeili.
We lunch at Tbeili’s factory. The owner, the guests and the workers all eat humus together, dipping pita into the same plate. Class division shrinks when hardship is the lot of all.
Three weeks after our visit, a truck will pull up to our Sindyanna plant in the village of Cana near Nazareth. It will be carrying thousands of bars of olive-oil soap. A few months later, after we have cleaned, wrapped and packed them, they will be sent for sale throughout Europe and parts of America by means of the international network of Fair Trade organizations, which has taken on the project of overcoming the curse of the checkpoints.