HOD HASHARON, Israel -- Israel is on the verge of replacing virtually all its Palestinian workers with cheap foreign laborers, a key step toward the government's goal of segregating Arabs from Jews.
The move is needed for Israel's security, the government says. But the imported workers bring problems of their own, while cutting off the chief source of wages for the Palestinian economy.
"For 28 years they have forced us to be attached to the Israeli economy, and now they say go find another job," complained Ra'ed Shedeh, 23, a Palestinian who now is barred from going the three miles from a Palestinian refugee camp to Jerusalem to look for work.
"There is no other job," he said. "The Palestinians have no resources. Without Israeli jobs, we cannot work."
Israel stepped up efforts to replace the Palestinians after a series of bombing attacks by Palestinian extremists. By preventing Palestinians from entering Israel legally, and replacing them with "foreign" workers, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has abandoned its policy of making the West Bank and Gaza Strip economically dependent on Israel.
Since seizing those territories in 1967, Israel has squelched the Palestinians' economic development while strengthening their ties to Israel -- until now.
For decades, Palestinians found jobs where they could -- inside Israel -- and the wages earned there became the Palestinians' chief source of income.
"I have seven children. I work in Israel to feed them," said Mosbah Afana, 37, at the Kalandia Refugee Camp north of Jerusalem.
Mr. Afana has worked in an iron-welding factory for seven years, but the most recent closure of the territories by Israel has kept him from work for 40 days.
When he was last at work, he saw foreign workers coming to the factory to replace the Palestinians. He fears his job will be filled by a Romanian.
"We are all very angry when we see the foreign workers come," he said.
"Every one of us has a family. We have to stay here, and we have no other jobs but to work in Israel."
From a trickle of a few thousand imported workers, the government has opened the taps to bring in nearly 70,000 workers.
Prime Minister Rabin has boasted that he can quickly increase the number to 90,000 and eliminate Palestinian labor.
"In four months, I can bring in 20,000 to 25,000 [more] workers . . . and there will be no need for any Palestinians in the territories to come to Israel," he told the leaders of major American Jewish organizations during a meeting last week in Jerusalem.
The "ultimate goal," he said, is to separate Jews from Palestinians.
Mr. Rabin often repeats his belief that Palestinians and Jews cannot live together; he has gone so far as to contemplate building a fence around Israeli territory to try to enforce the separation.
But Israel has found that importing the Romanians, Thai and other Third World laborers brings new problems.
Workers cheated, abandoned
That becomes obvious at the crude camp hidden behind a half-finished housing project at Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv, where about 230 Romanian and Thai workers are stranded. Their employer has disappeared with their wages and their passports.
"Israel has not been fair to us. It has played a big joke on us," said Ovidiu Zaharia, 34, who left his wife and two children in Romania to work for a year in Israel.
The foreign workers are vulnerable to being cheated and mistreated. Often they are housed in cramped, miserable conditions, and the workers may be promptly shipped home if they complain, say lawyers and social workers.
"Foreign workers are in a difficult position. They don't know where to turn," said Dana Alexander, a lawyer at the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.
"They don't know the language. They don't know the bureaucracy or who is supposed to enforce their rights. And they are afraid of being expelled."
The workers are sent chiefly to the agricultural and building industries, where Palestinians have been the mainstay of the work force.
"It's impossible to work with the Palestinians," said Joseph Arbel, deputy director general of the Israeli Association of Contractors and Builders.
"When a builder has a contract, he has to deliver. They can't have workers who come one day and not another."
The frequent closures imposed by Israel on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the political strikes called by the Palestinians have made Palestinian workers unreliable, he said.
'Palestinians are better'
But Yigal Dror, who runs a road and utilities construction firm, said, "The Palestinians are better. They work better, and we can speak with them."
Mr. Dror notes the gamut of approvals necessary for a contractor to get foreign workers.
Once here, they must be fed and housed, either by the builder or by the recruiting firm that acquired the workers.
At a construction site in Jerusalem, foreman Sandori Yacov watches with weary patience as his crew of Romanian workers erects an eight-story office building.
A Romanian supervisor, Mihiche Pintilia, comes into his foreman's shack.
He and Mr. Yacov launch into an animated pantomime, their hand gestures stirring a stew of French, Hebrew, English and Romanian.
"It is tough to communicate," said Mr. Yacov, a veteran of 33 years in the business.
"I don't think the government will really be able to replace the Arabs with foreign workers. I think that's just political talk."
Keeping Palestinians out of Israel has gained overwhelming political favor with Israelis as attacks by Palestinian extremists have continued.
But Mr. Rabin has acknowledged that very few of those attacks have been carried out by the Palestinian workers, whose background is checked before they receive the magnetic cards allowing them to legally enter Israel.
Permits sharply reduced
Nevertheless, Israel reduced the number of workers legally allowed to come from the West Bank and Gaza from 120,000 in 1993 to 15,000.
On Friday, the army announced that it would issue permits to 3,500 more Palestinian laborers. All others are still barred by the closure imposed after the bombing outside an Israeli Army base Jan. 21.
The government's plans for doing away with Palestinian labor in Israel do not count many thousands of "illegal" Palestinians. They work in Israel without permission, risking a fine and imprisonment if they are caught.
They enter Israel fairly easily by back roads from the West Bank, and are hired as construction laborers, restaurant dishwashers, garbage collectors or farm workers.
Israeli employers face a hefty fine for hiring them, but the employers take the risk. And they often pay the Palestinians less than the minimum wage.
Even the proponents of building a fence to separate Israel from most of the West Bank acknowledge it would be very difficult to cut off that supply of Palestinian labor.
Nor can the government keep Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem from taking jobs in Israel.
Hard labor spurned
Employers say almost universally that Israeli Jews spurn the hard-labor jobs.
Israel has a 7 percent unemployment rate, and 99,000 people are registered as looking for work. But "they want to go in high-tech or be a doctor," said Mr. Arbel.
Employers pay about $5 to $6 an hour for the foreign workers. But the recruiting firm that brings the laborers to Israel takes at least half of that, and the foreign workers say that unexpected deductions sometimes leave them with a pittance.
"They told me before I left Romania that I would make $1,000 to $1,500 a month," said Romanian Neagota Joan, 40, at the Hod Hasharon construction site.
"Instead, it was about $300 a month."
The men produced pay slips showing they were paid $2 an hour, though they said they worked more hours than the slips indicated.
Their earnings were reduced by charges for "commission," housing, food and a "guarantee," leaving net totals of $300 to $500 for the month.
The "guarantee" is a bond the recruiter must pay the government to ensure that the worker will complete his contract, usually a year long.
Many workers are unaware that the guarantee will be deducted from their pay, a practice of questionable legality, said Ms. Alexander, of the civil rights association.
All workers -- Israeli or foreign -- are supposed to come under Israel's labor laws, she said. But the laws are unknown to the workers and unenforced by the government, she said.
"The employers use tricks not to give even the minimum wage," said Hanna Zohar, who runs a workers hot line in Tel Aviv. "We hear a lot of complaints about their living conditions. Sometimes there is no water, no sanitation, too many workers in one room."
No food, no work, no money
"For one month now, we have been without food, without work, without money," said Prichard Sidi, a 37-year-old Thai at Hod Hasharon. He and his fellow workers had been living on handouts and occasional day work since the contractor who brought them here went bankrupt.
"Every day, they say they will do something for us tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," he said bitterly.
"I said just give us our passports and a ticket home, but they say there is no money for a ticket."
But many of the imported workers willingly endure the conditions because whatever they earn is many times more than their wages at home.
Mr. Zaharia, 34, sleeps in a bunk room made from a steel shipping container. It is about 6 feet wide and 20 feet long, jammed with seven beds. The beds are piled with soiled clothes and the walls tacked with pinups.
The men cook on a small two-burner hot plate, and eat at a rough wooden table hammered together from plywood and boards.
"We came here to work. We didn't expect to live good," he said. "This is just a place to sleep."