Intifada hits Palestinian workers

An imploding economy has put Palestinians, including migrant workers, in an increasingly dire situation.

Palestinian towns in the West Bank are occupied by the Israeli army.

But here, the cucumber rules.

For the Amriyeh family and hundreds of illegal Palestinian workers, the idea is to pick as many prickly vegetables as humanly possible during the six-week season. Never mind the blazing sun, tired backs, or police raids. But at least there is work – jobs have been scarce during what some economists say is the sharpest economic crisis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since they were captured by Israel in 1967.

The fields are in an area near Haifa known as Israel's "pickle basket," farmland that stretches against the backdrop of low hills shrouded by haze. They adjoin the cotton patches of a prosperous-looking kibbutz, Afek.

The soil is rich, but the poverty of the workers is immediately evident from the flimsy green booths where families eat and women sleep. Three-year-old Riham Amriyeh sleeps under burlap sacks hung over a rusty wheel. The family drinks irrigation water, says her father, Khaled, who is from a town near Jenin. He sleeps in the fields to evade police.

"We are being choked, and we have to live. There is no work in Palestine," explains Mr. Amriyeh.

Unemployment is over 40 percent back home and rising sharply. The cucumbers are sold by Israeli Arab landowners to a kibbutz, Beit HaShita, which turns them into pickles. Each of the six adults of the Amriyeh family earns about $10 a day, enough to stop them from sliding towards starvation.

While international attention is riveted on the political future of the Palestinians, their increasingly desperate economic situation is perhaps even more daunting.

About 25 percent of Palestinians lived below the poverty line before September 2000, when the current confrontation broke out, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Now the figure is about 60 percent. Before the intifada, an estimated 130,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. Israeli army officials say there are now about 30,000 illegal Palestinian workers in Israel and hardly any legal ones. Last year, a bus driver allowed in from Gaza ran over soldiers at a stop near Tel Aviv.

Israeli checkpoints, which the army says are needed to stop Palestinian attacks, have brought trade and transit to a virtual halt. Agriculture and industry have been decimated. "Families that had savings have used [them] up and they come to us begging," says Chris Nordahl, Gaza Strip field officer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

"When people face hunger they will sacrifice even their lives," adds Ghania Malhis, director of the Palestinian Economic Policy and Research Institute in Ramallah. Those picking cucumbers include teachers and other professionals.

The migrants sneak into Israel with ease, something that is likely to change over the next year with construction of a fence to stop suicide bombers from the West Bank. The workers take taxis that skirt the Salem checkpoint near Jenin, or come through Bartaa, a town that straddles the old border with Israel.

Hagai Wasserman, security officer of Kibbutz Afek, considers the workers a security threat. Nevertheless, he sympathizes with the suffering they go through, terming their toil "the work of oppression." The Hebrew phrase is used in the Bible to describe the Israelites' slavery in Egypt.

Israeli authorities are growing concerned that mounting desperation could explode into unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During a cabinet meeting last Wednesday, ministers approved the granting of 5,000 permits for workers from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel but dismissed a proposal by foreign minister Shimon Peres for 30,000 such permits for West Bankers and Gazans. Minister David Levy was quoted in the daily paper Ha'aretz as saying that easing restrictions will lead to attacks on Israelis and "create more graves."

The Palestinians would have been better off without suicide bombings, according to Amriyeh. "If not for these operations, we would be able to come and go," he says. But he thinks the new fence is unfair since there is no economic life left on the West Bank side. "Where will we work?" he asks.

In Mr. Wasserman's view, the migrants pose a danger to nearby suburbs of Haifa, including one of Israel's largest shopping malls. "It is enough if just one of them decides one day, 'Today I am not picking cucumbers, I am committing suicide,' " Mr. Wasserman says.

"These people come to do work, they want to make a living," he adds. "They are doing work that no Israeli or Thai or Filipino worker would be willing to do. We have not had any problems of vandalism or theft from them. I have nothing against them. But I hope it will be their last season, unless they can come back legally at some time in the future. My concern is not about criminal activity, it is about terrorist activity."

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