Israel moves to cut Palestinians off from jobs

March 05, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HOD HASHARON, Israel -- Israel is on the verge of replacing virtually all its Palestinian workers with cheap foreign laborers, a key step toward the government's goal of segregating Arabs from Jews.

The move is needed for Israel's security, the government says. But the imported workers bring problems of their own, while cutting off the chief source of wages for the Palestinian economy.

"For 28 years they have forced us to be attached to the Israeli economy, and now they say go find another job," complained Ra'ed Shedeh, 23, a Palestinian who now is barred from going the three miles from a Palestinian refugee camp to Jerusalem to look for work.

"There is no other job," he said. "The Palestinians have no resources. Without Israeli jobs, we cannot work."

Israel stepped up efforts to replace the Palestinians after a series of bombing attacks by Palestinian extremists. By preventing Palestinians from entering Israel legally, and replacing them with "foreign" workers, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has abandoned its policy of making the West Bank and Gaza Strip economically dependent on Israel.

Since seizing those territories in 1967, Israel has squelched the Palestinians' economic development while strengthening their ties to Israel -- until now.

For decades, Palestinians found jobs where they could -- inside Israel -- and the wages earned there became the Palestinians' chief source of income.

"I have seven children. I work in Israel to feed them," said Mosbah Afana, 37, at the Kalandia Refugee Camp north of Jerusalem.

Mr. Afana has worked in an iron-welding factory for seven years, but the most recent closure of the territories by Israel has kept him from work for 40 days.

When he was last at work, he saw foreign workers coming to the factory to replace the Palestinians. He fears his job will be filled by a Romanian.

"We are all very angry when we see the foreign workers come," he said.

"Every one of us has a family. We have to stay here, and we have no other jobs but to work in Israel."

From a trickle of a few thousand imported workers, the government has opened the taps to bring in nearly 70,000 workers.

Prime Minister Rabin has boasted that he can quickly increase the number to 90,000 and eliminate Palestinian labor.

"In four months, I can bring in 20,000 to 25,000 [more] workers . . . and there will be no need for any Palestinians in the territories to come to Israel," he told the leaders of major American Jewish organizations during a meeting last week in Jerusalem.

The "ultimate goal," he said, is to separate Jews from Palestinians.

Mr. Rabin often repeats his belief that Palestinians and Jews cannot live together; he has gone so far as to contemplate building a fence around Israeli territory to try to enforce the separation.

But Israel has found that importing the Romanians, Thai and other Third World laborers brings new problems.

Workers cheated, abandoned

That becomes obvious at the crude camp hidden behind a half-finished housing project at Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv, where about 230 Romanian and Thai workers are stranded. Their employer has disappeared with their wages and their passports.

"Israel has not been fair to us. It has played a big joke on us," said Ovidiu Zaharia, 34, who left his wife and two children in Romania to work for a year in Israel.

The foreign workers are vulnerable to being cheated and mistreated. Often they are housed in cramped, miserable conditions, and the workers may be promptly shipped home if they complain, say lawyers and social workers.

"Foreign workers are in a difficult position. They don't know where to turn," said Dana Alexander, a lawyer at the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

"They don't know the language. They don't know the bureaucracy or who is supposed to enforce their rights. And they are afraid of being expelled."

The workers are sent chiefly to the agricultural and building industries, where Palestinians have been the mainstay of the work force.

"It's impossible to work with the Palestinians," said Joseph Arbel, deputy director general of the Israeli Association of Contractors and Builders.

"When a builder has a contract, he has to deliver. They can't have workers who come one day and not another."

The frequent closures imposed by Israel on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the political strikes called by the Palestinians have made Palestinian workers unreliable, he said.

'Palestinians are better'

But Yigal Dror, who runs a road and utilities construction firm, said, "The Palestinians are better. They work better, and we can speak with them."

Mr. Dror notes the gamut of approvals necessary for a contractor to get foreign workers.

Once here, they must be fed and housed, either by the builder or by the recruiting firm that acquired the workers.

At a construction site in Jerusalem, foreman Sandori Yacov watches with weary patience as his crew of Romanian workers erects an eight-story office building.

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