Palestinian tobacco faces threat from crackdown on black economy

Thu Jun 20, 2013 2:59am EDT
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By Noah Browning

YA'ABAD, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian farmers sow tobacco sprouts in the rocky earth of the northern West Bank, reaping a harvest that provides a reliable livelihood in the struggling occupied territory.

From planting, drying and rolling, the local cottage industry has put dozens of whole families to work and has defied high levels of unemployment and poverty.

But pressures on their business are growing. Tobacco production and other parts of the rural economy, which have long eluded formal government regulation, are coming under the radar of the Palestinian Authority (PA) as it seeks to bolster its revenues and alleviate a massive debt burden.

In recent months the PA has begun clamping down on farmers who package and sell hand-rolled cigarettes around the villages, accusing them of smuggling and has even begun arresting some workers.

While the government maintains that building a modern economy depends on the rule of law, its critics say the moves to stamp out black market trading is another example of the state-in-waiting's failure to implement policies that protect jobs and help pull Palestinians out of poverty.

"We've triumphed over joblessness," said farmer Mohammed Amarnih, 65, adding that tobacco cultivation had brought unemployment in several local villages down to near zero.

"The government has given us no alternative to this work, so (this is the only way) we can live a normal life in dignity," he complains.

Former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who left office this month, struggled to counter rising poverty and unemployment rates, which are both now at around 25 percent. He resigned after widespread complaints over his handling of the economy and soaring costs of living.   Continued...

A worker harvests tobacco leaves on a field in the West Bank village of Jalqamus near Jenin June 15, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman