Hundreds of Palestinians are risking their lives every day to get into Israeli territory that has been off-limits since the Intifada began in September ― not to fight Israel, but to find work.
"It's like an obstacle course," says Faeq El-Khawaja, who works in a Jewish settlement just outside Ramallah in the West Bank. "You run up hills, you hide behind trees, all to avoid the army roadblocks."
Sometimes even the most circuitous routes aren't enough to escape the attention of Israeli soldiers. Mahmud Issa, 28, is in a Beit Jala hospital after police descended on a construction site oustide Jerusalem where he was working with 15 other Palestinians. "They beat us and humiliated us," he says. "And all because we want to put food on the table for our families."
Nobody knows for certain just how many Palestinians worked inside Israel before the latest Intifada, or uprising, began. Israeli statistics put the number at 130,000, including 45,000 temporary workers, while Palestinian officials put the numbers at 145,000, with between 75,000 to 85,000 temporary laborers.
With an Israeli army blockade in place around the Palestinian territories since September, and on many roads linking Palestinian villages, those who still try to work on Israeli soil are few and far between.
But many complain they are not getting enough aid from chairman Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. "How can I keep away hunger?" asks 48-year-old Abu Ahmed, a native of a West Bank village north of Nablus who says he has received less than $150 (€175) in assistance from the Authority since September.
Palestinian labor minister Rafiq Nacha counters that the Authority is doing its best, having aided what he claims are 73,000 workers, but that the Arab world is not providing sufficient help.
"We've asked Arab nations to help by hiring Palestinians and will continue our discussions with donor countries to assist us in overcoming the pressures from the Israeli blockade," he told AFP.
The Palestinians say the blockade is costing their economy around $10 million a day, and one non-governmental organization says more than 1,000 people trying to get into Israel have been questioned since June 2 ― a day after a suicide bomber killed 21 people at a Tel Aviv nightclub.
"Last week, a special Israeli unit disguised as workers arrested a bunch of Palestinians and threatened them with weapons," says Assaad, a 31-year-old mason originally from the Dheisheh refugee camp close to Bethlehem.
The army doesn't always just threaten: Khawaja says he was on the scene when Israeli troops shot dead 30-year-old Jamal Nafaa last week. "There was a group that was coming back from work and tried to get around a roadblock," he says. "They opened fire and shot Jamal, while his friends were able to get away through an olive grove."
Israeli military sources later said the soldiers had opened fire because Nafaa was behaving suspiciously. ― (AFP, Jerusalem)
by Majeda El-Batsh
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)