Ghost Workers of IsraelOn January 10, 2009 by Mona Abouissa
An investigation into the lives of Palestinian ghost workers who build Israeli settlements. It is a story about being in the right place at the wrong time.
Published in Rosa Yusef (Egypt) 2009, Russia Today 2009, The National (UAE) 2011
“We built Israel,” says Abbas. He has been traveling illegally to Tel Aviv from Salem village (near Nablus) to work on a building site since 2001. In the 1950s Palestinians crossed borders into Israel to work on their former fields. After 1967 those borders were erased. Now with the separation wall, those borders exist again – if you have the wrong ID papers. While the older generation can get security clearance to work in Israel, the younger generation is retreading forgotten paths that were once used during the 1950s by their fathers and grandfathers – secret routes. “They [Israelis] can’t get by without us and we can’t get by without them,” says Morad, who works in an upscale Tel Aviv restaurant under a forged Israeli ID.
The Wall’s construction was started in 2002 by the State of Israel during the second Intifada. Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister, said, “a fence is not a political border, it is not a security border but rather another means to assist in the war against terror, and greatly assists in stopping illegal aliens.” The suicide bombings declined, the “fence” slithered even further into Palestinian land, and illegal aliens became undocumented souls working in Israel, building their future. Now there are between 35,000 and 40,000 illegal workers, according to the Palestinian Workers’ Union.
The World Bank has identified Israel’s closure and movement restriction regime as a leading cause of the rapid deterioration of the Palestinian economy.
Rich in Tel Aviv, shot in Nablus
At night Tel Aviv unveils its nocturnal creatures and pastimes. Youths stroll along the boulevard, transgender divas puff smoke outside gay pubs, Rabbis park their musical vans and call people to dance and pray, couples occupy candle-lit restaurants and prostitutes take up their dark corners.
It is doubly odd with Arabic music blaring from a car’s speakers. In the front seat is Morad, who baked bread for 10 years in a top-notch restaurant, and is involved in the illegal business on the side. He built a villa and soon will get married and leave Tel Aviv, where he spent half of his life. Next to him, young Ibrahim has been sneaking into Tel Aviv since he was 16, looking for a job, fun and nice clothes.
Both men came from a small village near Nablus in Palestine. And here they are wrapped up by Tel Aviv’s nights and the limited possibilities their forged IDs can afford them. Back in another small village near Nablus, another illegal worker, Jalal, was shot in the head. Some of those young men get rich, and some die.
Deir al-Hatab is a small village near Nablus in the northern West Bank. The village is situated near the settlement of Elon Moreh and has witnessed numerous violent clashes between Palestinians and settlers. Bullet-proof buses come and leave the settlement. Village people used to fight the Israeli occupation during the first and second Intifadas, now they grow olives. There is an aura of war’s aftermath. Many were in jail, many were militants, and many faces are on photoshopped posters with M16s in their hands and the Al-Aqsa mosque in the background – Shaheed (martyr) posters. Many are blacklisted and forbidden to work in Israel.
At Jalal Ouda’s family house, his mother looks with pride more than grief now at her son’s posters that cover the corner of their small living room. Tall, skinny, with high cheekbones, he died at 26. A mosque behind him, the word shaheed beneath his name. In 2006, he was shot by the Israeli Defense Forces when a taxi driver transporting illegal workers attempted to race away from soldiers at the Hawara checkpoint. “The driver took the settlement road to save time,” Umm Jalal, his mother, remembers,” when the driver saw that the soldiers stopped another two vans with illegal workers he tried to escape, the boys asked him to stop but he did not.“ Two other workers were wounded and Jalal was killed outright. Mild protests echoed from human rights organizations, but nothing has changed. “People will not stop going to work in Israel, people aren’t scared,” says Ramzy Ouda, Jala’s brother.
Fathers at the Wall at dawn
Palestinians are highly involved in the Israeli construction business, there are around 15,000 Palestinians who are employed by Jewish and Arab contractors in building and expanding settlements. They make 3 times more than working for Palestinian employers, however, for Israelis, it is cheap labor.
Back in Wadi Foukin (8km from Bethlehem) the night is calm. The village is sandwiched between the Green Line and the Israeli West Bank wall. The lights from settlements glitter across the valley, they surround it on three sides. From the empty side thorny mountains stretch, crawling with border police and monitored by Apache helicopters – the 35km secret route of illegal workers.
We sat on the terrace contemplating the silence of the night. Bassam spent most of his life building settlements. He extended the house and bought a BMW. He has a work permit because he is over 35, has a family and a clean record. Bassam comes home late, tired with just enough energy to greet his family and play with his lively 4-year-old son. The next day he will wake up at 4 am to go to the checkpoint in Bethlehem.
Under graffiti of a spread palm with five religions written on the fingers, and a heart nested in the middle (a sign of religious unity), hundreds of men over 35 squash into a narrow fenced walkway. Fathers with work permits wait under the Wall’s floodlights. Israeli border police let them in through the checkpoint and the line moves faster. The impatient ones squeeze through holes in the outer fence. Jerusalem just starts to wake on the other side. It is 4am, they need to be at work by 7 and leave at 3pm, as sleeping over is illegal – those are the security rules. Bassam is somewhere in the thick line of workers, under the activists’ signs – “one love Palesrael”, “politicians bustards” and “Israel recuerda [reminds] Berlin”.
There are now around 21,600 Palestinian workers with legal work permits, according to the Palestinian Workers’ Union. Before the Wall, before the second Intifada, there were no permits. Palestinians traveled freely to work in Israel.
Welcome to Israel
Geha junction in Tel Aviv is a busy place in the morning and in the afternoon when Palestinian workers go to and from work. Several microbuses line up waiting. It is a gold mine for young drivers. They are on top of the underground hierarchy. “You know how much I make in one month? Over $4000!” says Khalil smugly, a Druze Arab Israeli. Beside him, several other young men in their 20ies wait; neat clothes and gelled hair. They shuffle workers old enough to be their fathers like vegetables, bargain rides’ prices from the city to the checkpoints. “Do you have a permit? Yes, then hop in,“ says Khaled, 21 from Kfar Kasem (10 miles from Tel Aviv).
The illegal ride from Palestine to Israel costs around ILS 200 (USD 50). Legal workers pay less. Near the junction is an eerie abandoned shopping mall with its doors sealed. Its underground parking lot used to be a ghost workers’ hideout. It goes several floors down and looking through its darkness sends chills down the spine. There still are still tuna cans and rotten mattresses visible. But the workers are not hiding there anymore, since the police ambush.
“We do not argue with them as they can report us to the police,” said Abbas, an illegal worker. “I am afraid of Arab Israelis more than Israelis,” said Ibrahim, who lives in Tel Aviv under a forged Israeli Arab ID.
It is a hierarchy, depending on where you were after 1948 and 1967. Palestinians who stayed after the 1948 war were given Israeli papers (like the drivers), and called Arab Israeli by Israelis. Palestinians who were under Israeli administration when it occupied the West Bank in 1967 have only Palestinian papers.
“We have no jobs here, so the only option to build your life is to go and work in Israel,” said Abbas, 26, “yes it is risky but what else we can do?” The unemployment rate in the West Bank ranges from 19.5 to 15.9, fluctuating due to seasonal agricultural work, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. He told me that they travel from Salem to Nablus, to Ramallah, to Bethlehem, where they cross the wall. Then they start their walk for up to four hours and arrive in Israel where they are picked up by Israeli Arab drivers for ILS 200 (USD 50) and taken to Geha junction in Tel Aviv. He makes around ILS 3000 (USD 790) a month, stays in Israel for 5 days a week squatting at the building site where he works, and back home – via the same secret route. Abbas is studying to become a teacher, but for now, his livelihood is about keeping a low profile and building houses behind the hoardings.
“Sometimes Israeli neighbors come to the site and bring us water or some food, however when you are done they have no interest in you anymore,” says Abbas. If police find out their location, for those Palestinians it could be the last time they see the land of milk and honey. A second arrest could cost them months in an Israeli jail. For a contractor, it could be a fine of up to ILS 30,000 ( USD 7,940). At the end of work, the workers usually burn the foam they sleep on so as not to leave traces.
The workers told me that word of mouth is how Palestinians find work on the other side of the wall, how secret routes are mapped and journeys are priced.
An Israeli ID costs ILS 1500-3000 or around USD 400 – 800, Ibrahim told me (or Joseph according to his Israeli ID). You still use secret routes entering Israel, but you can get a job in the service industry. Service jobs pay double construction rates, Morad told me, who is involved in a business forging Israeli papers. The cards give you the option of coexisting within the skillfully woven Israeli security system – as long as Israeli police do not run your card through their database and find a mismatch between the photo on the screen and the person in front of them. The young men even can not risk going to the movies, “you never know, maybe they are checking your IDs in the cinema,” says Ibrahim. “In the end, you can not live like this forever,” says Morad. Israel is crammed with patrols and cameras, and both the young men know that they can not live this double life indefinitely, one day they should leave Israel. “I would love to go back and live in my land,” Morad anticipates the day he returns and settles down in Palestine. He is getting married next year and has enough capital to open his own business after working in Israel for 15 years. Ibrahim was in an Israeli jail for 28 days because he switched car plates and went with his friends to a settlement to shop for clothes. He says, “Palestinian society is complicated and strict, I want to travel abroad,” he is more preoccupied with having his freedom, nice clothes, and a European lifestyle than with the politics of the two countries in the gap in which he exists like a ghost.