Israel moves to replace its Palestinian workers

April 11, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel approved bringing 18,250 foreign workers to take the place of Palestinians in farm fields and construction sites in an effort yesterday to further separate Israelis and Arabs.

Several ministers said Israel is preparing for a lengthy extension of the closure imposed last week that bars 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Israel.

Palestinians "must understand unequivocally that if terror actions continue, Israel is first of all committed to security of its residents," said Labor Minister Ora Namir.

The closure was imposed Thursday after a shooting and a car bomb attack carried out by Palestinian extremists claimed eight victims.

The Cabinet said the closure will continue at least through Thursday. Economics Minister Shimon Shitreet said it may last "weeks or years," according to Israel Radio.

The Cabinet approved a plan to import workers -- most likely from Romania, Bulgaria and Thailand -- for six months to help Israeli employers replace the Palestinians, who fill many of the menial and low-paying jobs inside Israel.

The decision will double the number of foreign workers brought here. The Cabinet also extended a subsidy program to try to encourage unemployed Israelis to do agricultural work.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Cabinet he wanted to reduce Israel's dependence on Palestinian labor, according to ministers at the meeting.

"In the long run, we have to start getting used to the issue of separation," said Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, minister of housing and construction.

But Culture Minister Shulamit Aloni protested that the act of two Palestinian terrorists does not entitle the government to punish nearly 2 million Palestinians.

"They are human beings. They have families. They have to work. They have to feed their children," she said. "The terrorists can come in even if we have a closure."

Israel has periodically imposed closures in the name of security, most recently after the Feb. 25 attack on Muslim worshipers in Hebron by a Jewish settler. Each time, officials have vowed that Israel should break its dependence on cheap Palestinian labor.

Those closures have generally dissipated as Israeli employers find that there are few other workers willing to do those jobs at low wages and as Palestinians find a way around the roadblocks to get to employers.

Palestinians make up the bulk of the work force in the construction industry, and they do much of the farm labor. Many Palestinians also work in factories and service industries. Programs to get Israelis to do those jobs have fallen short.

But the repeated closures and tighter restrictions -- Israeli employers face fines, and Palestinian workers can be jailed if caught working in Israel -- has gradually reduced the size of the Palestinian work force inside Israel.

Four years ago, more than 100,000 laborers crossed the "green line" into Israel each day. Before a closure was imposed after the Hebron massacre and tightened last week, an estimated 30,000 Palestinians were allowed into Israel.

Although some Israeli employers are hit hard by a closure, the much-weaker Palestinian economy suffers more than the Israeli economy. Employment in Israel is a chief source of income for many Palestinian communities, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Those workers have no other jobs, and a closure further impoverishes them, the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot noted in an editorial yesterday.

"The expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinian wage earners will require the Israeli government to supply them with alternative employment in the territories, or to get out of there quickly and hand the responsibility over to future Palestinian authorities," the paper said.

Ironically, it is the Israeli military, in charge of security, that is often most uncomfortable with closures made in the name of security.

"The closure means less families will have money to eat, and naturally it will heat up the area," the army general in charge of the the Southern Command, Matan Vilnai, said yesterday.

"We have to understand that the bond between the Palestinians and us is very close. The economic dependency on us is very great. And the need for cash exists," he noted.

The closure also bars Palestinians from getting to hospitals, colleges and religious institutions. The most important of these are in Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its own territory. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are barred from East Jerusalem.

"We cannot cut off the territories completely, cautioned Energy Minister Amnon Rubenstein. "There are issues of medicine, issues of trade, issues of raw materials, issues of travel abroad."

The closure further strengthens the border between Israel and the lands it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, a border past Israeli governments tried to erase. It still is not shown on maps printed in Israel.

Conversely, Palestinians who are seeking independence from Israel complain loudly when a closure drops the gates at checkpoints and keeps them from crossing into Israel.

Also yesterday, three Muslim guards at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs testified under subpoena before the Israeli commission investigating the Hebron massacre.

All said they saw only one gunman, Baruch Goldstein. Other Palestinians in the mosque previously testified that they believed other gunmen were involved.

The inquiry commission has heard from 102 witnesses and is expected now to review the evidence. It may call additional witnesses before issuing its findings.

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