Khaled Abu Toameh , THE JERUSALEM POST
The last thing that Abu Mohammed al-Najjar wants is for Israel to succumb to US and European pressure and halt construction in the West Bank settlements.
As far as the 58-year-old laborer is concerned, freezing the construction would be a disaster not only for him and his family, but for thousands of other Palestinians working in various settlements in the West Bank.
Of course, this does not mean that they support Israel's policy of construction in the settlements. But for them, it's simply a matter of being able to support their families.
"I don't care what the leaders say and do," al-Najjar told The Jerusalem Post at one of the new construction sites in Ma'aleh Adumim. "I need to feed my seven children, and that's all I care about for now."
The phenomenon of Palestinians building new homes for Jewish settlers is not new. In fact, Palestinian laborers have been working in the construction business from the first day the settlements began in the West Bank.
Today, Palestinian Authority officials estimate, more than 12,000 Palestinians are employed by both Jewish and Arab contractors building new homes in the settlements.
In some cases, Palestinians have found jobs in settlements that are located near their villages and towns.
Jamal Abu Sharikheh, 27, of the village of Bet Ur al-Tahta, has been working as a construction laborer in Givat Ze'ev for the past three years.
Asked if he had any problem building homes in the settlements at a time when the international community was demanding that Israel freeze the construction work, the father of four also said he was trying to support his family "in a dignified manner."
He and most of the laborers interviewed by the Post over the past week said they had never come under pressure from fellow Palestinians to stay away from work in the settlements.
"If they want us to leave our work, they should offer us an alternative," Abu Sharikheh said. "We don't come to work in the settlements for ideological reasons or because we support the settlement movement. We come here because our Palestinian and Arab governments haven't done anything to provide us with better jobs."
Back in Ma'aleh Adumim, most of the Palestinian laborers said they had no problem revealing their identities.
"We're not doing anything wrong," explained Ibrahim Abu Tair, a 42-year-old father of eight from the village of Um Tuba, southwest of Jerusalem. "We're not collaborators and we're not terrorists. We just want to work."
He said that during the first intifada, which began at the end of 1987, some Palestinian groups tried to stop Palestinians from heading to work in the settlements.
"In the beginning there were threats and physical assaults on some workers," he noted. "But the leaders of the intifada later realized that depriving the laborers of their livelihood would have a boomerang effect on the Palestinians. That's why they allowed the workers to go to the settlements."
Even today the PA does not object to Palestinians working in settlements, although its representatives say they would like to see the Palestinians work elsewhere.
"We can't tell the workers to stay at home without providing them with solutions," admitted a Palestinian official in Ramallah. "We're talking about thousands of families in the West Bank that rely on this work as their sole source of income."
Some of the laborers said that boycotting work in the settlements would be ineffective and pointless because their employers would have no difficulty replacing them with Chinese or other foreign workers.
"Look how many foreign workers there are inside Israel today," complained Jawdat Uwaisat, 44, of the village of Sawahreh in the Bethlehem area. "There are about 150,000 workers from different countries who have taken our places of work inside Israel. They are even bringing workers from Thailand and Turkey."
He said that he and his colleagues working for Israelis earn almost three times what they would receive doing the same work for Palestinian construction companies.
"The Palestinian employers pay us NIS 100 to NIS 150 a day," Uwaisat said. "The Israeli companies, by contrast, pay NIS 350 to NIS 450 a day. That's why many of us prefer to work for Israeli companies, even if the construction is in the settlements."
He added that even Palestinians known as supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are employed as construction workers in settlements.
"I know some people from Hamas who work as construction laborers in Ariel," he said. "When people want to feed their children, they don't think twice."
While most of the laborers told the Post that they were opposed to the settlements, they nevertheless stressed that they would continue to show up for work every day.
"If you see how big some of these settlements are, you will understand why the talk about a two-state solution is kalam fadi [nonsense]," commented Iyad Mansour, 55, of the Kalandia refugee camp, who has been working in Ma'aleh Adumim for the past three years.
"These settlements are growing every day at a very fast pace," he said. "One day you see empty land, the next day you see new buildings. They are really fast in planning and building. But who knows? Maybe these settlements will one day become homes for Palestinian refugees."