Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 June 2002
Wajee is keeping a low profile this week. The 17-year-old from Jenin, who sells vegetables from a stall in the souq of the Galilean town of Nazareth, is one of a small and embattled group of Palestinians who can still find employment in Israel.
Last week, in the wake of a suicide attack near Gilo that killed 19 Israelis, the authorities declared war not just on the bombers but on Wajee and other Palestinians who continue working in Israel in contravention of a general closure of the occupied territories designed to keep them out.
Estimates suggest that maybe fewer than 10,000 Palestinians now find employment in Israel. Before the Intifada erupted in September 2000, some 120,000 Palestinians crossed each day into Israel to work.
Israel’s chief policeman, Shlomo Aharonovsky, said he was giving top priority both to rooting out the few remaining Palestinians living illegally in Israel and to prosecuting Israeli employers who assist them. The security forces say they have evidence that some Palestinians have used their knowledge of Israel’s towns obtained while working in places like Netanya and Rishon Letzion to launch attacks.
On the first day of the crack-down last week, more than 1,400 Palestinians were detained; a further 30 Israelis were arrested for hiring or providing them with accommodation. According to security sources, the round-up brought the number of incidents of Palestinians being detected in Israel this year to 115,000, although the figures include the same repeat offenders.
Aharonovsky also called on the government to step up work on building a high-security fence around the West Bank to seal it off, as has already been done with the Gaza Strip. Construction of the fence began last week near Jenin and is not expected to be completed for another 12 months.
A law passed last September allows the security forces to detain any Palestinian found in Israel without a work permit. Nowadays that means all Palestinians. Apart from 2,000 with special exemptions, there are no permits being issued by the Civil Administration, Israel’s military authority in the occupied territories.
But with the Palestinian economy in ruins, the incentive for West Bankers to cross fields or hills into Israel, and run the risk of being shot by military patrols, remains high.
Those who can break through the military sieges of their villages and towns still head for the Green Line and the hope of work. In fact, after the mass detentions of men in April’s Operation Defensive Shield, Israel has room in its jails only to imprison the most persistent offenders. The rest are sent back to the West Bank, often returning via a different — and frequently more dangerous — route, days or even hours later.
But if the authorities cannot stem the flow of desperate job seekers they can cut off demand.
Construction firms and kibbutzim (farm collectives) have continued using Palestinian workers because they are cheap. Wehbe Badarni of the Labourer’s Voice workers’ charity based in Nazareth says: “Palestinians are attracted by the relatively highly paid work — up to 100 shekels [$20] a day. Local businessmen, on the other hand, know that unskilled Israelis would expect to be paid at least three times as much. With Palestinians it’s also cash in hand so employers save on tax and national insurance payments.”
But the authorities are threatening employers with heavy fines and jail sentences, including up to three years for transporting an illegal worker. The police also have the power to impound employers’ vehicles.
Businesses, worried about hiring Palestinians, are now putting the Israeli government under pressure to increase quotas of foreign workers, mainly from south-east Asia and eastern Europe, to make up the shortfall. This month an extra 6,000 Thais were flown in on the orders of the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Palestinian labourers, until recently at least, found sanctuary in northern Arab towns in Israel like Nazareth, Arrabeh and Umm Al- Fahm, where the ties are not simply economic. Extended family networks often cut across the pre-1967 Green Line border between Israel and the West Bank.
Wajee, for example, lives with and works for his uncle, an Israeli Arab.
“I have relatives here who look out for me,” said Wajee. “I work for them and then send the money I save back to my family in Jenin. My father and brothers rarely have work so they rely on me.”
But even this source of income may dry up soon. Nazareth and other Arab locales were high on the list of targets chosen by the police last week. In the northern region which includes Nazareth more than 230 Palestinians were detained in the first 48 hours of the operation.
Ghassan Basool, editor of the Al-Ain weekly newspaper in Nazareth, says the effect has been dramatic. “Until last week you could see Palestinians everywhere in Nazareth. The police have largely kept out of the town since the Intifada started and they felt safe. But now the streets have cleared. However sympathetic they are, employers are scared. If there’s no work, the Palestinians disappear.”
Those returning to the West Bank, however, are finding the state of the Palestinian economy ever more dismal.
During its 35-year occupation, Israel failed to create an indigenous industrial base in the West Bank or Gaza. Most non-professional men were forced to join a migrant labour force that depended on entry into Israel or the Jewish settlements for work, usually in construction or farming.
But even those limited employment opportunities are narrowing. After recent attacks on settlements, including the latest at Itamar near Nablus, in which five Israelis were killed, the settlers’ governing body, the Yesha council, has decreed that settlements should end their practice of hiring Palestinian labourers.
The settlements have already destroyed local farming opportunities for many Palestinians. A recent report by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem says that although the settlements cover less than two per cent of the West Bank they control though their local councils 42 per cent of the territory.
There are also 10 or so industrial zones established in the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, but according to the Civil Administration they have been barely functioning since permits were withdrawn from the Palestinian workforce.
And many self-employed workers and professionals in the West Bank and Gaza have found their chances of making a living severely harmed by the tightened closures and repeated invasions. Trade with neighbouring countries like Jordan and Egypt and between the main Palestinian cities has become an exasperatingly complicated and expensive affair.
A recent World Bank report estimates the costs to the Palestinian economy of the mounting restrictions on movement during the first 15 months of the Intifada at $2.4 billion in lost gross national revenues, a huge slice of its income.
Yizekeal Lein, a researcher with B’tselem, says before the Intifada 22 per cent of Palestinians were employed either in Israel or by settlements, making Israel the second largest employer after the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Now unemployment is soaring as Israel withdraws the last employment opportunities and the PA’s coffers are empty. Figures suggest that up to 40 per cent of Palestinians now have no work, and in some areas the numbers are far higher.
According to the World Bank, about half the Palestinian population lives below the official poverty line, on an income of $2 or less a day. One of its authors, Nigel Roberts, believes that since April’s invasion of the West Bank that figure may have risen to three-quarters of Palestinians.
The Israeli government has made matters worse by holding on to more than $500 million in tax receipts and duties it has collected on behalf of the PA under the Oslo agreements. It argues that the money would be used to finance terror.
Faced with international pressure to release the funds, Israel has countered that the PA has accumulated large debts with Israeli companies. However, last week treasury officials admitted the total sum amounted to only a fraction of the money owed to the PA.
The only hope offered to Palestinians came from Sharon himself, who in March announced a “Marshall Plan” for the occupied Palestinian territories. He proposed using international funds to establish more industrial zones and projects in the West Bank and Gaza that would create up to 170,000 jobs over the next three years.
Lein, who has studied the Palestinian economy, said: “I’m suspicious of any plan to create industrial zones. Most of the 10 that were established in the 1990s have never been properly operational. For example, the Sha’ar Binyamin factory north of Jerusalem looks great from the outside but as far as I’m aware it’s never produced anything. The same with the Shimar industrial zone close to Mount Hebron.”
He adds that the settlers have been keen to push for more industrial zones. “What these zones are really about is finding another excuse to confiscate tracts of Palestinian land. In that respect they are very effective. Put a few caravans up at an illegal outpost and you take control of very little land, but industrial zones can eat up enormous areas and bring them under Israeli control.”
Al-Ahram Weekly – 30 June 2002