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Israel No Palestinians Need Apply

5 minute read
Jon D. Hull/Tel Aviv

Neither the Israeli army nor Palestinian activists managed to force Nasser Hemeid to quit his job in Israel. Arising each morning at 4, he defied Arab strikes and army curfews as he made the eight-mile trip from the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where he put in nine-hour days as a plasterer for an Israeli construction firm. After nine years on the job, his wage had risen to nearly $3 an hour, just enough to support his wife and five children.

Hemeid’s boss was more easily intimidated. Three weeks ago, Hemeid was fired, another victim of the latest surge of fear and violence between Arabs and Jews. “My employer was scared of me,” said Hemeid last week, sitting at home under military curfew. “How am I going to find another job and feed my family?”

Most Israelis are more worried about their physical safety. In the past six weeks, 14 Israelis have been stabbed by Palestinians, four of them fatally. That bloodshed, which followed the killing of 20 Palestinians last month by Israeli forces during a riot on the Temple Mount, has dealt the notion of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians its worst blow since the uprising started three years ago. As tough military measures fail to stop the attacks, more and more Israelis are demanding a ban on the 120,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who work in Israel. Says Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat: “The majority of Israelis don’t want to be around Palestinians.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir responded to the outcry by clamping new restrictions on Palestinian workers. Computers are churning out expanded lists of Palestinians banned from entering Israel for security reasons, while authorities raided restaurants, shops and factories last week and rounded up more than 1,000 illegal Arab workers. Economics Minister David Magen promised to introduce measures to cut in half the number of Palestinians from the territories working in Israel.

Ironically enough, the crackdown has won support from Shamir’s foes, but not for reasons that would please him. Though critical of the latest hardships being imposed on Palestinians, Israeli doves applauded Shamir for unintentionally underscoring Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Says Peace Now activist Tzaly Reshef: “It’s a first and positive step toward building separate entities.” The policy was also welcomed by Palestinian strike enforcers, who have beaten and executed Arabs in an unsuccessful effort to impose an embargo on Israel.

Their enthusiasm is not shared by Arab laborers. “What choice do I have?” asks Samir Hassan, a mechanic in an Israeli garage in Jerusalem. Economist Abdel Fattah Abu-Shokor of An-Najah University in Nablus predicts that a total ban on Palestinian labor in Israel would raise unemployment from 20% to 55% in the West Bank and from 25% to 60% in Gaza. Says Abu-Shokor: “The Palestinian economy cannot survive without Israel.”

Israeli policymakers say the international community should fund new jobs in the territories, but they consistently squash any Palestinian efforts toward economic independence, fearing the political implications. George Nasser, a textile-factory owner in Bethlehem, says he was repeatedly refused permission to expand from 35 to 140 workers. “If we were allowed to modernize, nobody could compete with us,” he says.

Only one-third of the Palestinians employed in Israel have work permits, and even bona fide laborers are barred from spending the night inside Israel. Many ignore the ban, sleeping in the back rooms of restaurants and warehouses to save money and avoid roadblocks. On average, they earn about 40% less than their Israeli counterparts, and many are forced to pay social security taxes even though they are ineligible for most benefits.

Nasha’t Muhammed Hussein, 35, will suffer more than most if he is expelled from Israel. Two years ago, he was stabbed seven times in the back by fellow Palestinians in his village of Deir al-Hatab in the West Bank for ignoring a strike. Now he sells olives from a small shed in Tel Aviv’s vegetable market, which employs hundreds of Arabs from Gaza. His wife and seven children live in the nearby Israeli-Arab town of Jaffa, changing apartments every three months to avoid detection. “If I’m sent back, I’ll be killed,” he says. “I’m scared of the fanatics on both sides.”

Ardent Zionists hope the latest anti-Arab sentiment will reawaken the blue- collar Jewish work ethic that built Israel. So far, however, few Israelis have been willing to accept low wages cleaning streets and digging ditches. The Dizengoff shopping center in Tel Aviv laid off 30 Palestinian janitors from Gaza two weeks ago, after they repeatedly missed work because of strikes and curfews. Managing director Gidon Kottler admits that he’ll have to either raise salaries to attract Jews or use more machines. He says, “Jews are ashamed to do that kind of work during the day when people will see them, so we may have to clean only at night.”

Shamir’s determination to reduce the Palestinian presence in Israel — while preserving Israel’s de facto annexation of the territories — is likely to backfire, widening the fissure along Israel’s 1967 borders. “You can’t just put Palestinians into refugee camps with no money and no work,” says left- wing Knesset member Shulamit Aloni. “That would be hell.” Eventually Shamir will have to decide whether to allow Palestinians to nurture their own economy or whether simply to send more soldiers into the territories to face the wrath of the unemployed.

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