Permits Restrict Palestinians' Lot
BEIT UR ET TAHTA, OCCUPIED WEST BANK — AYED SULEIMAN leaned on a low concrete wall and pointed to the nanny goat, the family of rabbits, and the coop full of chickens that fill his yard. ``That's what we live off,'' he said. ``I've got a wife and six children, and I've had only two days work since Jan. 16. If it weren't for these animals, we'd have nothing.''
A victim during the Gulf war of blanket curfews on the West Bank that made seeking a job impossible, Mr. Suleiman now finds himself trapped by a new system of travel permits that has sharply curtailed the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel.
Income from jobs in Israel - long one of the pillars of the Palestinian economy - has been slashed by as much as 50 percent by the new regulations, according to local economists. The result, says a Western diplomat, has been ``enormous privation.''
The deaths last month of six Israelis, stabbed by Palestinians inside Israel, has heightened public pressure on the government to limit the number of Palestinian workers allowed into the country.
Some politicians have called for the complete exclusion of all Palestinians living in the territories, while Police Minister Ronni Milo suggested that all Gazan bachelors under the age of 30 should be kept out of Israel.
Turning down such sweeping measures, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir nonetheless ordered the authorities last week to be more selective in their distribution of work permits to Palestinians and more thorough in their punishment of Israeli employers hiring Palestinians illegally.
Each morning before the war, Suleiman would leave his hillside village in search of a day's casual labor on a building site in Israel. He was one of about 110,000 Palestinians, according to government estimates, who worked at the bottom end of the Israeli economy (two-thirds of them illegally) in construction, on farms, and in service jobs.
Their wages contributed about 30 percent of the territories' gross national product, according to Samir Hilleileh, a Palestinian economist. They were a particularly essential source of income since remittances from Palestinians working in the Gulf states fell last year from $400 million to $50 million as a result of the war.
At the same time, Israeli employers were glad of a cheap work force hired casually and illegally to whom they did not have to pay minimum wages, nor the social security benefits to which registered workers are entitled.
The government did not strictly enforce the law, and before the war all Palestinians except those with a green identity card, regarded by the authorities as security risks, were allowed to enter Israel to seek work.
Under the new regulations, however, all Palestinians are effectively regarded as security risks, and none may come into Israel, including Jerusalem, unless they have a permit. Such permits are granted only at the request of a potential employer, and then only after security checks on the applicant, Israeli officials say.
Employers are also obliged to transport their workers to and from the occupied territories, since Palestinians are no longer allowed to bring their cars into Israel without special permits.
Although Shmuel Ozenboy, the spokesman for the government coordinator in the occupied territories, said last week that the authorities had issued 75,000 work permits so far, would-be Palestinian laborers and other residents of the territories say they see little evidence of that. Fewer than half those who worked in Israel before the war are able to do so now, most of them estimate.
``If you go into the villages and the refugee camps now you see a lot of young men sitting idle,'' says a relief worker. ``The pass system is getting to only half the workers who need it.''
``Since the borders opened after the war, about 25 percent of the Palestinians who used to work in construction have been coming to work,'' adds Zvi Friedman, spokesman for the Israeli Federation of Building Contractors.
In Beit Ur et Tahta, many men said they had applied to the local civil administration headquarters for work permits but had been refused.
``Three different employers tried to help me, but when the official saw my ID card he told me `no.' My name is in the computer,'' says Abdelhadi Shahwan, a former teacher who says he has been arrested several times for his political activities.
Even Suleiman, who was granted a 30-day permit, finds it of little use, since he was needed only for two days' work.
With most families' savings spent during the Gulf war curfew and remittances from the Gulf slowed to a trickle, Palestinians in the territories have little to fall back on, relief workers warn. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which normally aids only Palestinian refugees, has launched an emergency food distribution program for needy people outside the camps as well.
If working in Israel is increasingly difficult, finding a job in the West Bank or Gaza Strip is virtually impossible, local people say, because businesses are running at less than 50 percent of capacity - hamstrung, among other things, by the permit system.
Since Jerusalem is off-limits to those without a permit, and one cannot go from the north West Bank to the south without passing through Jerusalem, the two regions are effectively cut off from each other.
``The travel restrictions in the West Bank are hindering the free flow of goods and services and people, and these things are crippling economic activity,'' points out a Western diplomat.
With the Palestinian economy on its knees, little relief is in sight.
``Having workers in Israel means immediate cash coming in, and that's not happening,'' says Ibrahim Matar, deputy director of American Near East Refugee Aid, a development agency in the occupied territories. ``But in the long run, it's the disruption of the economy on the West Bank that is most destructive.''