Barkan Industrial Park, West Bank — The Palestinian worker digesting news of this week’s terror attack didn’t have much to say — until I touched a nerve. How can it be, I asked, that two young people are dead and some in Gaza are handing out candies to celebrate?
Suddenly impassioned, he tried to put his finger on it. “You know why they behave like this?” he asked rhetorically, sitting in the Barkan Industrial Park, not far from the terror scene. “Because they don’t work in a place like this. If Gazans worked here they’d feel differently.”
As he spoke, enthusing about the pay and conditions for the 4,000 Palestinian workers in this park, the families of 29-year-old Kim Levengrond-Yehezkel and 35-year-old Ziv Hajbi, were sitting shiva. Both of them arrived at a factory around the corner on Sunday morning, and were then tied up and brutally murdered by a Palestinian colleague. As of press time, Israeli forces were still searching for the suspect, Walid Suleiman Na’alwa.
The attack has shaken this West Bank industrial park to its core. The park is Israeli-run but actually has more Palestinians working there than Israelis, and for 35 years they have worked alongside each other without violence.
“I am shocked and saddened by this morning’s terrible terrorist attack at the Barkan industrial area,” said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin shortly after the incident. “This was not only an attack on innocent people going about their daily lives, it was also an attack on the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians coexisting peacefully.”
The sense of calm in Barkan before the attack was such that even security seems to have been relaxed, with workers reporting that they were waved in to the park by guards who recognized them, instead of having IDs checked and undergoing searches. There is speculation that this could explain how the killer got a gun into the park.
Now everyone is searched. “I leave my home now at 5 a.m. to get to work at 7.30 because of what this man did,” complained the Palestinian worker.
Another Palestinian worker said of the attack and the attacker: “What happened here wasn’t good. He made chaos for everyone.” He said he was angry because of the loss of life, because of the laborious security checks that have been instituted and because he feels that they attacker tried to undermine the spirit of the park.
“I’ve worked here for six years and never came across a manager who defined people as Jew and Arab — everyone is together,” he said.
It’s a picture that riles Palestinian leaders — which is why the Palestinian workers agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. The Palestinian Authority decries industrial parks in the settlements, and has on occasions tried to pressure workers to leave jobs there. And the goods made in such areas are top targets for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activists.
On the Israeli left there are mixed feelings. Veteran activist Angela Godfrey-Goldstein said that “the more you have people working together the better.” On the other hand, she sees the parks as a form of “colonialism” that divert attention from the urgency of a political solution to the conflict. People should be focused on creating a viable Palestinian state with “billions pumped into a healthy economy,” not relatively small numbers of jobs, she insisted.
But in Barkan, there is a feeling that industrial parks have more potential to contribute to stability than people realize.
There is the economic equation. Asi Muhammad, an Arab man who lives in Israel and runs a mini market in the industrial park, reported, peppering his speech with Yiddishisms and Hebrew: “Lots of people said to me they are angry about this meshuganer — they said he’s ruining our parnassah [livelihood] and our future.” He then clarified the scale of the parnassah he was discussing.
Muhammad said that each Arab person who works in Barkan supports an average of 10 family members. And salaries are higher than elsewhere in the West Bank. One Palestinian worker who did agree to be named, Abed Titi, said: “People here earn double the salary, and I earn maybe three times, what we would earn working for Palestinians.”
Shortly after the attack happened, Moshe Lev-Ran, a senior manager at Twitoplast, an Israeli plastics company based at Barkan, gathered his Palestinian employees. “They understood they could lose their jobs,” he explained afterwards, saying they feared that the government could revoke work permits for Palestinians. “We said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be with you.’”
Economics will bring peace — not our leaders and not their leaders, but economics.
Lev-Ran is convinced that the more Palestinians working in Israeli companies, the better the chances of peace. “Economics will bring peace — not our leaders and not their leaders, but economics,” he said, adding that politicians do have a role to play in driving economic development.
Lev-Ran, a moderate on the Israeli political spectrum who lives inside the Green Line, wants to see more industrial parks, and wants them to attract investment from across the world.
“If we do this, no one will shoot any rockets or shoot a gun because it will be like Switzerland here,” he said, adding that terrorists wouldn’t dare attack parks with heavy foreign stakes. “Believe me, Hamas will not shoot.”
It seems like a pipe dream, but it’s hard to rule out anything when the Trump administration is changing its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and looking for new ideas.
The Netanyahu government has long championed “economic peace” but failed to fully explain the concept or come up with a plan. Now, the Trump administration is sidelining the Palestinian Authority, chipping away at the taboo on settlements and curbing aid that doesn’t bring what the White House considers a clear return. On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, in a brief statement saying that a terrorist had shattered “harmony,” called Barkan “a model of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.” Economic development in the center of the conflict may appeal to America’s businessman-turned-president.
Lev-Ran is convinced that his vision of industrial parks as a bridge to peace will, one way or another, be realized, and could even set the stage for a political agreement between Israel and Palestinians. As for Sunday’s attack, while tragic in human terms, it was, he insists, just a “bump in the road.”
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.