Israel's closed borders: a trial separation Hardship falls on Palestinians

June 06, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

HIZMA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Atif Hussein is separated from his wife and eight children. It is not their choice; the Israeli closure of the West Bank keeps them apart.

Under the arcane pass rules enforced by Israel, Mr. Hussein does not have a Jerusalem identity card. Because his wife's father was in the city in 1967, she does have the card. So she can stay in Jerusalem, but her husband cannot.

The 36-year-old school custodian sneaked back once, but he was fined 350 shekels (about $140) and spent 48 hours in jail. The next offense would cost him even more. So he stays with a brother in this village north of Jerusalem.

"I have never been separated from my family like this before," he said. "It's not good for anybody."

The closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Israel, now in its third month, is laying bare the realities of separation to two societies that have been closely entwined despite their enmity.

It is proving to be a trial run for any eventual political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, with some unexpected results:

* Israelis, who have tried for most of 26 years to erase the borders to the occupied territories, are finding they like the closure. They have discovered they can live without much -- although not all -- of the Palestinian labor that comes cheaper than Israeli labor.

* Palestinians, who have long demanded their own state, are discovering they are more dependent on Israel than they thought. They are suffering from this sudden divorce.

* Both sides are seeing the central importance of Jerusalem. Any hope that a peace agreement could finesse the intractable question of control of the city is fading.

"We cannot create a Palestinian state without Jerusalem. It is the soul of the body for the Arabs," said Mr. Hussein.

Israel imposed the closure March 31 after a month in which 15 Israelis were killed by Palestinians. On roads from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, armed soldiers at checkpoints now turn back all Palestinians but the few who have permits to enter Israel.

It is the longest such closure since Israel captured the land in the 1967 Six-Day War, longer even than the clampdown during the Persian Gulf war. Israeli officials are pleased that it has reduced attacks on Jews -- the death toll dropped to five in April and May -- and they are in no rush to lift the restrictions.

Conversely, the 2 million Palestinians trapped by the closure have seen a rise in violence -- 49 Palestinians were killed in the last two months by soldiers. And they have felt an increase in the impoverishment of their already difficult lives.

"It's affected the Arabs a lot more than it's affected us," said Israeli grocer Benjamin Yitzak in a working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem. "We don't need them."

But Shlomo Cohen needs them. The Israeli contractor has five building projects under way, and he suddenly lost most of his workers.

Palestinians from the West Bank could not get to his projects in Israel, and Mr. Cohen saw chances of meeting his deadlines disappear.

"This project was supposed to be finished in July," he said at the site of a luxury condominium in Jerusalem. "Now it will take another five months."

"We try to get Jewish Israeli workers, but very few want to work construction," he said. "The government has spoiled them. A guy who gets unemployment gets about 75 percent of what I pay as a starting salary. When he can sit in a coffee house or play with friends or sleep in the morning, why should he come to work for just 25 percent more?"

Closure supported

Despite the disruption to his business, Mr. Cohen supports the closure.

"Israelis will just have to learn to work," he said. "We can't live in the situation like we had before."

At a tire repair shop in an industrial area of Jerusalem, Yehuda Suissa learned exactly that lesson.

"The managers had to start changing tires" when his company lost its five Palestinian workers, he said. "There was a lot of pressure."

They have since hired two Israeli Arabs and a Russian immigrant, and the lower payroll has been good for the company, he said. Even if the closure is lifted, the West Bank Arabs would not be rehired.

"Some of them had been working for us for a long time -- one of them for 14 years," he said. "I don't know what has happened to them."

Before the closure, an estimated 100,000 to 120,000 Palestinians worked within Israel in legal jobs or as day laborers off-the-books, which is to say they had few or none of the benefits a regular worker would have. Wages earned by Palestinians provided an estimated one-third of the income for the West Bank and one-half in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli fears that key industries -- such as construction and agriculture -- would collapse without Palestinian laborers have proven unfounded. But that is largely because the closure is not complete: Authorities have given hard-hit employers permits to bring 38,000 Palestinians through the checkpoints every day.

But Palestinians who do not get one of those passes face economic disaster.

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