For Gazans, getting to jobs in Israel can be the toughest part of their work


BEACH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- In the last sigh of

night before every dawn, Mohammed Gander stands in a line of shoving men, contemplating his painful way to work.

Will he be stopped by the soldiers, who may find some excuse to tell him to wait or to go home -- or worse -- to seize his permit to work?

Will there be problems on the road to his job in Ashdod, Israel, where Palestinian workers are vulnerable to any Israeli who gives them an order?

Will he work enough this week to feed his pregnant wife and four children, or the other 13 family members in his house?

It is for that last reason that Mr. Gander, 30, arrives at the border of the Gaza Strip every day at 5 a.m.and spends the one or two or more hours waiting to be checked by Israeli soldiers.

When this daily ritual dissolved into a riot Sunday morning -- leaving two Palestinians dead and more than 70 Israelis and Arabs wounded -- it illustrated an economic dependence on Israel unbroken by the new Palestinian autonomy.

Despite the new Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip, despite the proud new Palestinian flags, despite Yasser Arafat's pronouncements about independence and a new state, the Gaza Strip still must send workers into Israel to survive.

"I have to do this to have money to live. I can't make enough in Gaza," says Mr. Gander. "I want to work in my own state, but I cannot earn enough."

World attention focused on withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip two months ago obscured this unchanged daily routine of workers lining up to go into Israel.

The procession of workers is both a lifeline for the Gaza Strip and a death grip. After Sunday's riot, apparently begun by Palestinians without job permits, Israel sealed off the Gaza Strip temporarily, cutting off all Palestinians who would cross to work.

"There can be no employment linked to the kind of vandalism and endangering of human life of the kind we witnessed," said the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, referring to Sunday's confrontation.

About 15,000 Palestinians go from the Gaza Strip into Israel to work every day, according to Israeli authorities. Before the Persian Gulf war, it was more than 70,000. As Israel reduced the flow of workers, unemployment soared to more than

percent and the Gaza Strip sank deeper into poverty.

So those like Mr. Gander who still have the laminated pass and the clean identity card and the special credit card magnetically imprinted with permission are thankful for the chance to work. They endure the morning exasperation.

Two workers -- Mr. Gander and a neighbor, Mohammed Musa Abu-Nada -- show why.

Both are skilled construction workers. Both live in the Beach Refugee Camp, a squalid place of open sewers, dirt streets and homes of concrete block and tin built by refugees fleeing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

When Mr. Gander makes it through the checkpoint every morning, he takes a bus to Ashdod in Israel, where he is helping build a seven-story apartment building. When he returns home late at night, he will have earned 120 shekels -- about $40.

Mr. Abu-Nada, 25, takes a taxi into nearby Gaza, where he helps build a 13-story apartment building for Palestinians. At the end of his day, he returns with 40 shekels -- about $13.

He was trained to be a pharmacist's assistant, but that job pays even less, said Mr. Abu-Nada. Even so, the construction work is sporadic: Some months he works only one or two weeks.

, Mr. Abu-Nada supports his wife, two young daughters, and an extended family that crowds 22 people into one house.

"There are things I would like," he said. "I would like to have money for my own home. I would like to save some money. I'd like money to pay for health insurance, or some of my debts from my marriage. But I don't have it."

Mr. Gander, too, has expenses.

"We have eight persons living in one small room. There is no source of income to the family except me," he said. "If we need to buy tomatoes, we need 12 kilos [26 pounds] for a few days. Potatoes the same. We don't buy much meat. Just the expenses of life."

His younger brother, Mahmoud, 26, only recently got permission from the Israelis -- and a sponsoring employer -- to enter Israel for construction work. After the riot Sunday, Israeli police rounded up his construction crew, although they had left for work before the disturbances, and put them in jail for a day. Then they took away his permission.

"I don't know what I will do," he said. "If I work in Gaza, I don't get enough. We already eat the cheapest foods -- beans, salads, potatoes. We buy the cheapest things. We already are less than zero, below poor."

There are trade-offs to both jobs. Mohammed Gander leaves his house at 4:30 a.m. and often returns at 8 p.m. But most of that time is spent getting to and from work: His shift is 8 to 10 hours of work.

Mr. Abu-Nada leaves home at 7 a.m. and is back by 7:30 p.m. But he often works 12 hours, with no overtime and no health insurance, which his neighbor gets from the Israeli employer.

Both support Palestinian autonomy, although both have complaints about its limitations. But neither sees much change ahead for the Gaza Strip -- or themselves.

"There's not enough jobs in the Gaza Strip. We will still be dependent on work in Israel," said Mr. Gander.

"I am not happy working for the Israelis and building their buildings in Ashdod," he said. "When we finish a building, I know Israelis will live there. But among the workers, we say we hope to God that one day they will leave and we will live in this building."

Mr. Abu-Nada's work inside Gaza may be more politically correct for Palestinians. But he knows the cost:

"If I had a chance to work in Israel, I would do it right away," he said.

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