Israel qui­etly lets in Gaza work­ers

Pales­tini­ans al­lowed to con­duct business, work me­nial jobs

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By Fares Akram

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel is qui­etly al­low­ing thou­sands of Pales­tini­ans to en­ter from the Gaza Strip to con­duct business and work me­nial jobs, ap­par­ently as part of un­der­stand­ings with the rul­ing Ha­mas mil­i­tant group aimed at pre­vent­ing a fourth war in the block­aded ter­ri­tory.

Israel ef­fec­tively re­voked thou­sands of work per­mits when it joined Egypt in im­pos­ing a crip­pling block­ade on Gaza af­ter Ha­mas seized power from ri­val Pales­tinian forces in 2007.

The block­ade, along with three wars be­tween Ha­mas and Israel, has dev­as­tated the econ­omy in Gaza, where un­em­ploy­ment is over 50%.

In re­cent months, Israel has qui­etly pro­vided some re­lief as part of an unof­fi­cial, Egyp­tian­bro­kered truce with Ha­mas, in ex­change for re­duced rocket fire from the ter­ri­tory and the scal­ing back of weekly protests along the bor­der.

It has al­lowed Qatar to de­liver mil­lions of dol­lars in cash to al­low Ha­mas to pay its civil ser­vants and has al­lowed the United Na­tions to step up aid ef­forts.

Now it ap­pears Israel has ex­panded a pro­gram in which it had long pro­vided hun­dreds of per­mits to business own­ers to travel to Israel and the West Bank for com­merce.

Pales­tinian of­fi­cials say it is now pro­vid­ing some 5,000 so­called mer­chant per­mits and award­ing them to Pales­tini­ans work­ing as la­bor­ers in con­struc­tion, agri­cul­ture and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

The Is­raeli mil­i­tary body that ad­min­is­ters civil­ian af­fairs in Gaza did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Ha­mas of­fi­cials also de­clined to com­ment.

On a re­cent Sun­day, dozens of men in tat­tered clothes, car­ry­ing their per­sonal be­long­ings in duf­fel bags and plas­tic sacks, filed through re­volv­ing gates at the Erez cross­ing into Israel.

Each had a mer­chant per­mit, but many of them ap­peared to be mak­ing the cross­ing for the first time and asked for ad­vice on how to pro­ceed.

One of the work­ers, who iden­ti­fied him­self only as Raed, said he paid $500 to a Gaza com­pany to ap­ply for a mer­chant per­mit and then re­con­nected with con­struc­tion firms he had worked for be­fore 2007.

He said the added in­come al­lowed him to add a new floor to his build­ing and buy a taxi for one of his chil­dren. He de­clined to pro­vide his last name, fear­ing it could en­dan­ger his per­mit.

“This is a golden op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

But he also fears the per­mit could be with­drawn at any time.

“There are no laws se­cur­ing our rights if we get into a dis­pute with the em­ployer.”

For Israel, the ap­par­ent change of pol­icy car­ries some risks, both po­lit­i­cally and in terms of se­cu­rity.

Israel and Ha­mas are bit­ter en­e­mies and al­low­ing sev­eral thou­sand young men from Gaza into Is­raeli ter­ri­tory could draw crit­i­cism — es­pe­cially at a time when Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has come un­der fire from hard-line ri­vals for his fail­ure to halt fre­quent rocket at­tacks from Gaza.

But oth­ers say that im­prov­ing lives in Gaza is also an Is­raeli in­ter­est. Gadi Yarkoni, head of the south­ern re­gional coun­cil near the Gaza bor­der, said he was un­aware of the de­vel­op­ment but was in fa­vor.

“I’ve long said we have to al­low for a bet­ter fu­ture for them, and as long as the se­cu­rity re­quire­ments are met, they should be al­lowed in,” he said. “It’s the right di­rec­tion. And if it is be­ing done qui­etly, that’s also a good idea.”

Ne­tanyahu’s of­fice did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Salih al-Ziq, the head of the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity’s li­ai­son com­mit­tee, which co­or­di­nates the en­try and exit of Pales­tini­ans with Israel, said Israel in­creased its quota for trader per­mits from less than 1,000 in 2017 to 5,000 to­day.

He said 4,000 have al­ready been is­sued and that the com­mit­tee stopped re­ceiv­ing new ap­pli­ca­tions af­ter 2,000 were sub­mit­ted for the last 1,000 slots.

The in­creased quota still rep­re­sents a “small frac­tion” of the 26,000 Pales­tini­ans who crossed into Israel from Gaza for work be­fore the out­break of the sec­ond Pales­tinian in­tifada in 2000, ac­cord­ing to Gisha, an Is­raeli rights group ad­vo­cat­ing free­dom of move­ment.

Ma­her al-Tabaa, an of­fi­cial with the Gaza Cham­ber of Com­merce, said a “large por­tion” of those ex­it­ing on trader per­mits are work­ers.

He said Israel has ex­tended the per­mits from three to six months and low­ered the min­i­mum age of el­i­gi­bil­ity to 25 from 30.

“This is good for Gaza, but it’s a very lim­ited ef­fect,” he said.

“We need 15,000 to 20,000 work­ers to go there in or­der to feel the ef­fect of this eas­ing.”

Gaza’s de­scent into mis­ery can be seen in the tra­jec­tory of men like Fadi, an­other worker who de­clined to give his last name for fear of ret­ri­bu­tion.

As the owner of an up­scale men’s cloth­ing store in Gaza City, he held a mer­chant per­mit for years, us­ing it to pur­chase clothes and shoes from Is­raeli whole­salers.

But like many oth­ers, his business fell on hard times in re­cent years, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity be­gan slash­ing the salaries of tens of thou­sands of its civil ser­vants in Gaza.

Fadi was forced to close his shop and was left with hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars of debt.

Even though he is a cer­ti­fied ac­coun­tant, the best job he could find in Gaza paid just $300 a month.

So, with the mer­chant per­mit from his business days, he crossed into Israel and be­gan look­ing for work. For sev­eral days he waited at a traf­fic circle in the coastal city of Ashkelon where con­trac­tors are known to re­cruit la­bor­ers.

He was even­tu­ally picked up and put to work at a con­struc­tion site load­ing con­crete rub­ble into con­tain­ers for re­moval.

“On the first day, I suf­fered un­der the sun and wanted to go home, but then I thought of my com­mit­ments in Gaza,” he said.

The job pays $600 a week. He spends the week in Israel, sleep­ing in a crowded, shared apart­ment with other work­ers from the West Bank and Gaza, and re­turns to Gaza on the week­ends to spend time with his fam­ily.

“I use the money I earn in Israel to pay my debts in Gaza and pro­vide a de­cent life for my fam­ily,” he said. “When I pay off my debts, I will think about quit­ting this hard work.”

TSAFRIR ABAYOV/AP

Pales­tini­ans pray as they wait on the Is­raeli side of the Erez ter­mi­nal to cross to Gaza Strip in 2017. Israel is al­low­ing Pales­tinian work­ers to cross there.

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