New Israeli work permit strands Palestinians in occupied territories


BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank -- Israel is moving to prevent thousands of Palestinians from returning to their jobs in Israel when the wartime curfews on the occupied territories end.

Authorities have begun enforcing a strict work-permit system that observers say will deny access to jobs of at least half of the 110,000 Palestinians who work in Israel.

The system could be devastating to the economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where paychecks from Israeli employers provided about 40 percent of the income before the Persian Gulf war began.

It leaves workers such as Mohammad Talab without an income to feed his family.

"We have not had meat since before the war began. I have 10 children," the 43-year-old truck driver said. The curfew on his village has been lifted during daytime hours, but without a permit he cannot return to work in Israel.

"Now I have to get food from this truck," he said, indicating the United Nations truck that was distributing rice and flour at a corner in Bethlehem yesterday.

Hundreds of Arabs crowded around the blue flatbed, waiting for hours for rations. Many said they were short of food because of a curfew that has kept 1.7 million Palestinians confined to their homes for more than a month. It is now gradually being lifted.

"I used to buy food for my family," said Naser Musdafa, 23, as he waited for the handout on the edge of the swollen crowd. "This makes me angry."

It is just such anger Israeli authorities hope to deflect by the work-permit rules. Army officials, who control access to the occupied territories, say they fear a renewal of violence, such as stabbings that occurred in Jerusalem before the curfew was imposed.

"We hope this will give us better control over the workers," said Brig. Gen. Freddy Zach, top officer in the territories.

To be allowed to work in Israel, Palestinians now must have the special work permit in addition to identity cards they already must carry.

The military will give the work permits only to those who have not been involved in the three-year intifada, or uprising, and who have not participated in the tax boycott. In addition, Israeli employers must arrange transportation for the workers.

As a result of these strict restrictions, only 17,000 workers from the occupied territories had returned to jobs in Israel as of yesterday. Some authorities predict the number may rise eventually to 50,000, but skeptics say it is unlikely to get above 20,000 to 30,000.

Because the permits are required for workers to get past checkpoints scattered throughout the occupied territories, the system also cuts off commerce and even family visits between towns in the occupied areas.

"It's a formula for trouble, a formula for disaster," predicted Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist.

Although work permits were issued before the war, only about half the Palestinians with jobs in Israel bothered to get them. Many Israeli employers sought workers without the permits so neither would have to pay employment taxes.

But the sometimes-violent intifada and Palestinian sympathies for Iraq during the gulf war have amplified calls by the political right wing in Israel to separate the Jewish and Arab societies.

Mohammad, 22, said he managed to sneak back to the company in Jerusalem where he has worked as a laborer for three years. But "my boss told me to leave and not come back. He said every Palestinian my age must be a part of the intifada.

"We used to be friends," Mohammad said, bewildered. "He used to come over to my house. We would drink tea and eat together."

Ephraim Ahiram, an economist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the loss of income in the occupied territories "could be almost disastrous."

The territories already are staggered by the war and the curfew, he said. Israeli policies discourage economic development in the territories, so there are no jobs for those denied their previous work in Israel.

"The policy since 1967 that caused zero investments in the territories was wrong," said David Magen, minister of economy and planning. He advocates promoting business in the occupied territories to give Palestinians jobs there, instead of in Israel.

Ironically, the separation being imposed by the new work rules has redrawn the "green line" boundary around the occupied territories captured by Israel in 1967, according to Didi Zucker, a liberal member of the Knesset. To expand Israel, the government had tried to ignore the old boundary and had erased it from maps.

"This just creates more frustration, more hatred, more boiling in the pot that will explode in our face," Mr. Zucker said.

Abu Hessein, 28, a construction worker, felt that frustration.

"The Israelis are just trying to starve us," he said. He would normally be at work in Tel Aviv, earning about $25 a day as a construction laborer, he said. Instead, he was peddling oranges and eggplants from the sidewalk in Hebron on the West Bank.

He expected to take profits of $3 to $5 home to his wife and children. "It's difficult to feed a family on that," he said.

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