Israel Limits Access of Arab Workers


ISRAELI calls for Arab workers to be replaced with Jews are raising Palestinian fears that tens of thousands of workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who depend on jobs in Israel are to be gradually laid off. Israeli officials argue that new measures being implemented to limit the numbers of Arabs from the Israeli-occupied territories working in Israel are justified by security concerns. A recent spate of Arab attacks on Jews, mainly in Israel, caused a wave of alarm and led to calls by right-wing politicians to ban Palestinians from Israel altogether.

In an effort to identify actual or potential troublemakers, as many as 20,000 Palestinians will have to carry special green identity cards, preventing them from entering Israel.

Palestinians say the impact on security will be negligible, and that Arab attackers will continue to find Israeli targets.

``The motivation won't go away by being sent home,'' says Hisham Awartani, a West Bank economist.

The new restrictions have more to do with Israeli unemployment and the current high rate of immigration from the Soviet Union, Mr. Awartani says. New immigrants are arriving in record numbers - almost 22,000 in October - and finding jobs for them is a mounting challenge for the government.

Unemployment in the Israeli-occupied territories, meanwhile, runs as high as 30 percent, with more than half of all Arab wage earners commuting to Israel.

Some sectors of the Israeli economy are heavily dependent on Arab labor. As many as 70 percent of all construction workers, for example, come from the occupied territories.

Twenty-three years of reliance on cheap outside labor have bred an Israeli distaste for the sort of menial jobs now filled by Palestinians.

``They don't like doing this kind of work,'' says Yossi Turjeman, an Israeli who employs two West Bank Arabs in his West Jerusalem restaurant. Israelis, he says, prefer to receive unemployment benefits than work for the sort of wages he offers.

But the recent violence has caused Israelis to ponder the risks of employing potentially embittered, resentful Arabs.

``I don't worry about my workers,'' says Mr. Turjeman. ``But when I read in the papers about an Israeli being stabbed by a man that used to work for him for seven years, it makes me think.''

When the authorities allowed Palestinians back into Israel last week, after a four-day ban, many Arabs found that they had already been replaced. Some say the trend will continue.

``For the first time since the Six Day War, one has started hearing the slogan avoda ivrit [Hebrew labor] again,'' wrote Susan Hattis Rolef, editor of Spectrum, the Labor Party's monthly magazine.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens, addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, described reliance on labor from the occupied territories as ``unhealthy.''

``A program has to be devised whereby the role of labor from the territories within the Israeli economy will be reduced in gradual stages,'' Mr. Arens said.

Marty Rosenbluth, an American who works with Palestinian trade unions, doubts that Israel can do without its Palestinian work force for long.

``The reality is that the occupied territories and Israel are interdependent,'' he says. ``The workers need the jobs and the Israelis need the workers.''

The new measures will attempt to limit the number of Palestinians illegally employed in Israel. About 50,000 of the estimated 120,000 people from the territories who work in Israel do so without permits.

If the government decides to phase Arab workers out of the Israeli economy, Awartani says the consequences will be ``awful.''

Apart from the financial cost to both sides, Awartani says that by removing Arab workers, the government would destroy the one model of Jewish-Arab cooperation in existence.

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