Palestinian workers hiding in Israel
PETAH TIKVA, Israel – Two Palestinian men crawl through an opening not much larger than a shoe box and descend a shaky ladder, into a space filled with the rank smell of urine and cigarette smoke.This underground, unfinished mall near the junction of two Tel Aviv highways is home for dozens of Palestinian laborers who can’t get scarce work permits. It’s where they disappear each night, living out of sight of Israeli authorities to fill jobs offered by Israeli businesses.”When you want to work, you are not afraid of anything,” said 23-year-old Abdul Jalil Hamad, who lights a candle on a concrete wall to shed light on his bed, a mattress that he found in the garbage.To avoid discovery by police, Hamad and his friends send only those with the best Hebrew and cleanest clothes to buy food at a minimarket on a back street. When the police catch him, he returns home to the West Bank with empty pockets, to face 14 family members who rely on his pay.An international aid boycott of the Palestinian government – imposed after the Islamic militants of Hamas rose to power in last year’s election – has exacerbated poverty in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where about a third of the able-bodied population is out of work.The result is that across Israel at least 10,000 illegal Palestinian laborers sleep every night in shacks made from leftover building materials, or in open orchards, or in unused structures like the mall. Meals often consist of bread, humus and cheese.Some stay in buildings with running water and electricity, so they can cook and bathe in warm water. But most lack such luxuries.”They can’t take showers for days and weeks, and they live in inhumane conditions,” said Hanna Zohar, founder of Israel’s Kav La’Oved workers hot line. “They are not criminals, but they are frightened like hunted animals.”The workers risk arrest, jail sentences, expulsion and even beatings. Dozens are caught everyday by border police as they try to get to work.Palestinian economist Samir Abdullah said the Israeli restrictions have had a ripple effect, since each laborer supports an average of seven people, and the anger pushes some Palestinians to join militant groups.”Israel carries responsibility for creating this phenomenon by squeezing the Palestinian economy,” he said. “They have to continue to find solutions as long as there is occupation.”Israel says the Palestinian uprising that began seven years ago – including a suicide bombing campaign that killed hundreds of Israelis – left it with little choice but to restrict Palestinians’ access to Israel.Jobs that Palestinians used to perform – construction, farming, cleaning – are now often filled by guest workers from Thailand, Romania, Philippines, India, China and other countries.About 55,000 Palestinians have permits to enter Israel for work, down from 120,000 in the mid-1990s, said Shlomo Dror, an Israeli army spokesman. Estimates of the number of illegal Palestinian workers in Israel range from 10,000 to 20,000 – all from the West Bank, as Gaza is surrounded by a nearly impenetrable fence.To avoid detection, Wahel Juma Asi said he spends more than half his monthly wage of $1,100 on renting an apartment and taking taxis to his job, stocking shelves at a minimarket. Still, the 22-year-old makes about four times as much in Israel as he can in the West Bank.”We come and go like thieves,” Asi said. “I can’t go out during the day, except to work. I duck down in the taxi so that no one sees me.”Asi has been caught many times, and was once put in jail for a year, he said. Police warned him the sentence will be even longer if he is caught again, he said.A border police commander from the northern Jerusalem area, Amir Cohen, said about 400 Palestinians try to cross the security barrier illegally everyday. Of those, many turn back when they see police patrols, and about 90 are caught, he said.In a tour, Cohen showed many sections where the barrier between Israeli and Palestinian areas has not been built, or where laborers climb over the structure. He acknowledged that although suicide bombers take the same routes, the vast majority of infiltrators have nothing to do with attacks.”We know that not even one percent of these people are bombers,” Cohen said. “We understand their suffering, but we have a goal and we have to carry it out as best we can.”Those who are caught are usually detained or sent back to the West Bank. Eitan Diamond, a researcher at the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, said that “every worker we talked to told us that at least once they were beaten and sometimes severely.”Basim Jabur, 33, said his arm was broken in one such beating. “Two border policemen came after me and started to hit me with a stick,” he said.Cohen denied his officers beat workers, and police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police investigate all accusations of violence.At the unfinished Petah Tikva mall, police cemented shut the main entrance, so only Palestinians thin enough to fit through the small hole can slip underground to sleep.Inside, a slight boy of 16 spoke as he ran his fingers around the flame of a candle. He gave his name only as Mohammed, and said he needs to support his family of eight because his father is paralyzed in both legs. He said he hadn’t found work for days and had to borrow money for food.”At night when we are sleeping he talks in his sleep about his troubles,” said a friend who stood next to him, giving his name as Maher.Asi, the minimarket worker, said if he’s discovered and expelled he would do anything to survive.”I’ll steal – or I’ll go to Hamas and they will pay me,” he said. “How did suicide bombers get into Hamas? Because they didn’t have any money and they went crazy.”
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