Job-Seeking Palestinians Pierce Israel's Barriers

Closing West Bank, Gaza may stop bombs but not ambitious

Daoud's van is full of dates, big crates of them, plump and freshly picked from the orchards of Jericho. Suddenly, his driver veers up a rocky dirt road, over the winding hilltops of the disputed West Bank. After 10 minutes of bouncing past trash-strewn ravines and the occasional Bedouin shepherd, they arrive in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Mission accomplished: to enter Israel without passing through an Israeli Army checkpoint.

"The office that gives me a stamp to bring in my dates is closed today," says Daoud, a Palestinian produce wholesaler. Daoud's mountain detour ends 100 feet beyond the Israeli roadblock and a five-minute drive from downtown Jerusalem. "Usually I don't do this," he says.

But the fact that it is so easily done is disturbing for Israelis. Their biggest worry is that Daoud's dates could have been dynamite sticks. Yet, to Palestinians, it is Israel's strict policies on entry of goods and workers from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel that has forced them to seek ways, legal or not, to improve their deteriorating economic situation.

At a time when progress in the peace process seems elusive, dwindling Palestinian incomes are having a more profound impact on their politics. Warnings that their patience is growing thin are supported by new evidence that so too are their wallets. Since 1992, per capita gross national product has fallen 39.4 percent in the West Bank, according to a new United Nations study. And of the total labor force of 521,000 Palestinians, about 50,000 are regularly allowed into Israel. At certain times - such as a recent alert that an Islamic militant group was planning a bombing - almost none are allowed in.

"People are telling us on the street, 'We were better off before the peace process,' " says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Analysts worry that under such circumstances, the atmosphere is ripe for the kind of deadly fighting that broke out in late September, killing 79 Palestinians and Israelis.

Many Palestinians see closure as a collective punishment - or as an Israeli political tactic to pressure Arafat into complying with Israeli demands.

Israel rejects such talk, but it does periodically use gradual easings of the closure as a confidence-building measure or concession to get talks back on track.

And as is so often the problem, Palestinians' economic woes are Israel's security worries. More than a hundred Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings committed by Islamic militants since the beginning of the Oslo accords, the Israel-Palestinian peace deals reached three years ago.

Many Israelis who would like to employ Palestinians are willing to do without, if the alternative is bombs at malls and on buses. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it was images of bombings that helped him defeat his dovish predecessor, Shimon Peres, last May.

The case of a Palestinian extremist blowing himself up while apparently constructing a bomb last weekend is evidence to many Israelis of the need for security. Some argue the absence of suicide bombings since March is evidence closure works.

Yet Israeli authorities know closure is not impermeable. This year, 5,800 Palestinians have been caught illegally passing into Israel.

"The police are aware of this phenomenon, and deploying policemen everywhere along the Green Line," Israel's pre-1967 border, says Linda Menuhin, the Police Ministry's spokeswoman. The ministry has even suggested building an $85-million fence between Israel and the Palestinians. But some conservatives frown on a fence, because it would be a small step toward acknowledging an independent Palestinian state.

That independent state is the Palestinians' ultimate goal, but they are not yet ready for separate lives. They want what, for many Israelis, is too tall an order: a political divorce without an economic one.

"We have a crippled economy," says Abdel Hadi, a political scientist. Right now, he says, "we can't have a total economic separation. We need Israeli help to stand on our feet. But on the political security track, we need separation."

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