Closure Wreaks Havoc on Palestinians, But Doesn’t Keep All Out
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip didn’t stop Jamil Abdel Khader from sneaking into Israel to look for work.
The 56-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank village of Yatta shared a taxi for most of the 40 miles to Jerusalem, then hiked the last three through the hills around the city.
``Whenever I saw a roadblock, I went another way,″ he said.
Like hundreds of Palestinians desperate to make a living, he risked a night in jail and $150 in fines _ equal to six days of wages _ to find work. On Thursday, Abdel Khader waited along Jerusalem’s No. 1 road, an area known as a ``slave market.″
On a normal day, hundreds of Palestinians from the West Bank wait there for Israeli contractors to pull up and offer them work. But in the days following Sunday’s two suicide bombings by Muslim militants, just a handful of workers made it through.
Israeli soldiers were out in force, patrolling the back roads on which Palestinian workers usually enter.
Eighteen Palestinians were caught at a surprise checkpoint on a road between the West Bank village of Jabal Mukaber and Jerusalem.
``It is better if they slit our throats,″ said Khaled Shekerat, 26, who has been caught twice before. A construction worker, Shekerat has to provide for a wife and two young children and said he has no choice but to take the daily risk.
Israel has sealed the West Bank and Gaza 14 times _ for a total of 79 days _ since the start of Palestinian autonomy in May 1994. The Gaza Strip alone was sealed for another 18 days.
Each day the borders are closed, the Palestinian economy is prevented from generating $2 million in wages and $2 million in exports. Arafat has complained that the cost of the closures has wiped out the benefits of foreign aid.
Many Palestinians argue that closures only fuel resentment against Israel and push more Palestinians into militant groups. Israeli leaders say closing the borders is the best way to prevent suicide attacks and restore a sense of safety to Israelis.
Palestinians also question the effectiveness of the closures, noting that if hundreds of workers are able to sneak in every day, the roadblocks don’t pose a serious obstacle to suicide bombers.
``It may help psychologically, but on the operational level I don’t think it contributes anything to the security of the Israelis,″ said Ziyad Abu Ziyad, a member of the Palestinian self-rule council. ``Israeli security knows this.″
The current closure is likely to be the longest ever, with some news media reporting that it could remain in effect until May 29 elections in Israel.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ popularity dropped sharply after Sunday’s suicide bombings, and polls now show him running even with hard-line challenger Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres is not expected to take any risks before the elections by easing the restrictions.
Closing the borders blocks all 2 million Palestinians from entering Israel. Even when the borders are supposedly open, residents of the West Bank and Gaza can only cross with special permits. Some 60,000 Palestinians have work permits in Israel.
The restrictions are especially hard on residents of West Bank villages near Jerusalem that have close ties to the city.
``They cannot come to bring their child to a doctor. An old man or woman cannot come to a mosque or church in east Jerusalem. They cannot come and buy a dress or food or visit each other,″ said Abu Ziyad.
Abu Ziyad, who lives in the West Bank village of Izzariyeh near Jerusalem, had to use back roads himself Thursday to get to city where he was the featured speaker at a Foreign Press Association gathering.
``I am here illegally,″ he told journalists. ``I can’t live without coming here, so I smuggle myself every day through a dusty road to the Mount of Olives and then I take a cab and come here.
``If they want to arrest me they can do it.″
Palestinians complain that the closures violate the Israel-PLO economic agreement which provides for free movement of workers and goods between Israel and Palestinian areas.
The latest bombings followed a lull of six months, and were prompted by the Jan. 5 assassination of the chief bomb maker for the militant group Hamas. The killing, widely blamed on Israel, set off widespread anger among Palestinians, and tens of thousands participated in memorial rallies.
Hamas, which was lagging in popularity, apparently took the anger as a signal that Palestinians would back a new campaign of attacks.
But Harbi Jamzawi, a father of 12 from the West Bank refugee camp of Kalandia, wasn’t about to do that.
He was working at a construction site near the coastal town of Ashkelon on Sunday when the bombs went off. An Israeli police officer ordered him and seven other workers to go home.
``Why should we pay for others’ crimes?″ he asked.