Pulling Palestinians out of Dumps All Part of Israeli Leader's Plan

The back of the truck slides open and a huge cascade of garbage slides out. Before it lands, 30 young men rush forward to paw through the fetid ooze.

"We look for anything we can sell," says Awad Ali, wiping garbage slime from his forehead. "Sometimes we find food. Israelis are rich. They throw away things we can eat."

Mr. Awad comes to this West Bank dump daily to sort through trash trucked in from West Jerusalem.

About 800 Palestinians earn $5 a day selling scavenged wares. Most are West Bank residents who used to earn $50 a day in Israel doing construction and odd jobs. But in March, after four suicide bombings, Israel imposed "closure" on Palestinian areas, leaving 50,000 Palestinians jobless.

But relief may be in sight: Yesterday, Israel's new hard-line government eased the border closure - a move that's apparently part of a strategy to make Palestinians more economically dependent on Israel, and thus less likely to agitate for independence.

Yesterday's easing was the most recent in a series of flip-flops on the issue. It followed reimposition of total closure Friday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after two Israeli settlers were killed near the West Bank town of Hebron. Palestinian militants are thought responsible.

Only three days before Friday's total closure, the government said it would issue 10,000 work permits to Palestinians.

The flip-flops hint at how the new government may pursue the closure policy it inherited from the previous government.

In recent weeks, top Israeli government figures, lead by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, have said the closure must be lifted because the economic crisis it has created in the Palestinian territories is causing "unacceptable" levels of political tension.

The closure costs the Palestinian economy about $6 million each day. The World Bank estimates that the unemployment rate in the West Bank is now about 30 percent and reaches as high as 70 percent in the Gaza Strip, where about two-thirds of the male labor force relies on work in Israel.

Per-capita income in the Palestinian territories is now reckoned to be half what it was a year ago. All of that leads to simmering political tensions - and support for militant action like last week's shooting, among even a largely pro-peace population.

The shooting was the first such attack since Mr. Netanyahu was elected on a platform that promised Israelis more security. It came as no surprise, then, when he quickly reimposed the closure.

But some members of Netanyahu's Likud party also question the closure's effectiveness. "The value of the closure is psychological. It makes Israelis think they are safe," says Gideon Ezra, a Likud parliament member. "But in fact, it has the opposite effect: It doesn't stop bombers." All the suicide bombers in February and March entered Israel without permits, he notes. "But it makes [Palestinians] angry, and that anger isn't good for anybody."

There are ideological motives for closure, too. For Likud, the West Bank and Gaza are part of "Greater Israel," and shouldn't be separated by borders. It wants no part of the "separation" or Palestinian autonomy plans pursued by the previous government.

Moves to ease closure also play well to Washington, especially at the White House, where many are wary of Netanyahu's hard-line stance. Even largely symbolic moves to allow 10,000 Palestinians into Israel mollify those concerns.

They also give the Israeli premier something to point to in talks with his Arab peace process partners.

Another pressure: Israel's bloated budget, which Netanyahu aims to shrink. To this end Netanyahu is eager to limit the nation's huge dependence on foreign laborers, of whom there are currently about 150,000 in Israel.

While imported workers must be given annual contracts, and thus cost money when not employed, Palestinian labor is flexible. Employers pay workers by the day with no benefits.

According to Palestinian political commentator Ghassan Khatib, Likud intends to use a looser closure to compensate Palestinians for political concessions that won't be made. "It's a question of jobs, in place of national rights," he says.

But Dr. Khatib and other Palestinian economists are doubtful that the Likud measures will really do much to improve a "dire" economic situation.

It is now thought that Israel may eventually issue about 50,000 new permits, most of them for laborers and dishwashers. But it's still a far cry from the 120,000 Palestinians who used to work in Israel before March 1993, when the closure was first imposed.

Leading Palestinian economist Samir Huleileh says permits are not the solution. The Labor government was interested in seeing a healthy, separate economy in the territories, he says.

"Permits, whether it's 10,000 or 50,000, don't mean much, when you consider the level of unemployment in the Palestinian areas," Dr. Huleileh says.

Khatib notes that the flip-flops on closure show that Likud intends to use the issue for political leverage on the Palestinian Authority, tying new permits to a further crackdown on militants. That is not a good sign, he says.

Permits may be the only short-term way to get people like Awad Ali out of the dump, Khatib acknowledges, "but as long as Israel continues to use closure policy as a political bargaining chip, there will be no real economic development here."

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