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Jonathan Ben Efrat
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They Always Return
E asked a group of Palestinian workers, “What do you know about Ali Abu Rob?” They were standing together at the Geha Junction, hoping an Israeli driver would stop and offer a job. We were looking for more information on the death of Rob, of which we had learned from Attorney Luna Barakat of PCATI, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. Among the workers at Geha, only one had heard anything. His name was Muti’i, 28 years old, from a village near Nablus, and like the others who stood there, he had no permit to be in Israel. “All I know is he died in prison,” said Muti’i. That was it. Ali Abu Rob – just one name on the list of those who have met their deaths in the Russian roulette of entering Israel to work.
Rob was 20. Three weeks before his death, he had been one of about 400 prisoners released as a result of the summit at Sharm al-Sheikh (February 8, 2005). He had exchanged the prison routine for that of thousands of Palestinian workers who seek livelihood in Israel. The lack of jobs in the Territories, the ongoing Occupation, and the ban on entry into Israel combine to transform these workers into “criminals,” because they sneak in without permits. According to Israeli regulations, only a Palestinian 35 or older can receive a permit to work. Even these, however, have a hard time getting them.
The last time Rob’s family saw him alive was on June 8, 2005, when he set out for Israel with his friend Ahmed. He got as far as the Barta’a Checkpoint in the West Bank. The army arrested him with Ahmed and took them to Jalameh Prison, near Haifa. There, according to Ahmed, Rob was severely beaten. Two days later (June 10), his body was located in the jail of Rosh Pina, an hour’s drive east of Jalameh.
We asked Attorney Barakat why Rob had been transferred to Rosh Pina. “This isn’t clear to me,” she said. “It’s my experience, though, that the police have an interest in hiding arrests in a very thick cloud. The jail at Rosh Pina is far away, and it’s hard for lawyers to reach it soon enough to visit the prisoners. Ali didn’t see a lawyer. But not only that, he didn’t even see a judge, although the law dictates that within 24 hours the State must supply him with a lawyer from the Public Defence and bring him before a judge.”
Rob did not see a judge. It is doubtful whether, during those last hours, he was able to see at all. A week after his arrest, on June 14, his older stepbrother Bassam was asked to identify his body at the Pathological Institute in Abu Kabir, near Jaffa. Bassam saw a body all swollen and full of bruises. The police claim that Ali committed suicide and was found dead in his cell. Bassam rules out this possibility. “He wasn’t afraid of jail,” he told us. “He had recently sat in jail for a year and a half. He was young, healthy and strong.” Bassam took the body for burial in the village. The pathologist’s report is to be given to Attorney Barakat in mid-July.
At the Geha Junction, Moti’i tells us: “It doesn’t make sense that he’d kill himself. After all, he wasn’t about to get a life sentence. We workers are used to being arrested. We know that the maximum we’ll get will be four months. That’s no reason for suicide. From my own experience – and I’ve been under their kicks and fists three or four times now – they beat you when there’s no responsible officer around. They hit you with their clubs and guns. Once they hit me in the stomach. Just a little more and they’d have killed me.”
In the case of Ali Abu Rob, the livelihood of his family depended on him and his brother Mahmoud (22). Now Mahmoud too is in jail for illegal presence in Israel. The family’s only recourse will be to pull the younger brothers out of school and send them to search for work beyond the fences and checkpoints.
What sort of reality awaited Ali Abu Rob, if he had managed to sneak into Israel? This we saw at the Geha Junction. One of the larger crossroads in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Geha is populated each weekday morning by hundreds of Palestinian workers, all illegal. At 6:30 a.m. they are there, hoping to board a transit that will take them to work for $30/day.
We asked them where they stay. “In an unfinished shopping mall,” they told us. We asked to see the place. No one was willing to take us. They were ashamed. At last one named Mahmoud Atallah agreed. “The camera should only be able to show how we live with fleas, with worms in the mattresses we bring from the dump. With rats the size of cats. That’s how the Israelis want us to live, so that they can still be the chosen people.”
We descended three stories underground. There is no light, fresh air, or water. The stench is suffocating. Scattered about on the floor are mattresses, blankets, and whatever little things the workers have found on the streets, gathered in an attempt to preserve a trace of the human image.
Attorney Barakat is also handling the case of Omar Asrawi, who worked in Israeli agriculture. Asrawi, a father of three, lived in Tulkarem and was permitted to work in Israel. On the morning of June 16, Omar arrived as usual at the Jabara Checkpoint. The soldiers shot and killed him. They claimed that he had approached one of them with a knife, although eyewitnesses deny this. Asrawi was brought dead to a Tulkarem hospital. It reports that a bullet passed from the back of his neck through the front, and another passed into his back and remained. From the medical report that Attorney Barakat procured for us, it emerges that Asrawi was indeed shot in the back. The case is now with Israel’s Attorney General Meni Mazuz.
ETWEEN Israel’s army, which takes pride in reducing terrorism, and Hamas, whose actions have given Israel the pretext to build the wall, here is a No Man’s Land where thousands of Palestinian workers are stuck, exposed like ducks on a shooting range while seeking jobs.
All tell us of blows received and police pursuits. These things are part of the risk. Sometimes it’s only a slap, meant to intimidate, and sometimes it’s a potentially lethal attack, from which the worker, if lucky, will get back home to recuperate for a couple of months. Moti’i reports a chase by the cops not long ago, when a fleeing worker fell into a hole in the unfinished mall and was severely injured. Another also fell and broke three disks in his spine. Today he sits at home, a cripple.
We ask: “The government doesn’t expel you, though they know you’re here, but on the other hand, they attack you physically. Why?” They throw us bits and pieces of answers, out of which we assemble this picture:
The Palestinian workers are familiar with the ups and downs of Israel’s labor market. Since 1967 they have been an integral part of it. Today the government has tightened the supply of cheap migrant workers from overseas. There is again a market demand for the Palestinian labor force. All those who cannot get permits, but who manage to sneak into Israel, will work for practically any wage and under almost any conditions, in order to recoup at least the $20 - $45 which it cost them to circumvent the checkpoints, get to Jerusalem (not yet walled) and from there to places like Geha Junction.
Muhammed from Beit Furik explains: “The government wants that we should work. It prefers us over the migrants, because our money flows back into Israel’s market.”
Muhammad Nasasra: “Israel doesn’t want a revolt on its hands, so it lets a few people out to work. On the other hand, they pressure you so that you’ll either give up asking for an entry permit or agree to collaborate.”
This is not a matter of isolated individuals, but thousands. Yihye, a father of six from the Nablus area, tells us: “I was arrested for two months a year ago. I sat in Damun prison. Why? I don’t have a weapon or bomb. My only crime was that I didn’t have a work permit. And I wasn’t alone. Between 1500 and 2000 workers were there with me.”
The workers understand the contradiction. On the one hand, the Israelis turn a blind eye, but on the other, as Omar Farouk puts it, “They don’t want us here, for racist reasons. They don’t want us spoiling the view. But we aren’t criminals. We didn’t come from the streets, we came from good homes. The search for bread is what brings us here.”
Ra’ik joins in: “If we knew that the PA [Palestinian Authority – Ed.] would pay us 50 shekels a day, do you think we’d travel all the way from Nablus, via Hawara, Za’atara, Anata and Jerusalem, and then sneak in here, living all the time in fear that they’ll make us go back?”
Yet many of the dwellers in the underground mall at Geha Junction return home at the end of the week without a shekel in their pockets. “When that happens,” says Ibrahim, 27, from another village near Nablus, “you simply don’t want to talk about it. It’s embarrassing to explain how a man can live this life of humiliation and still not get work. Our families don’t know the conditions we live in. And they also don’t ask.”
“So why do you come back?”
We don’t have any alternative, they answer. A young man named Assem from Nablus: “The story of Ali Abu Rob is one among a million stories, stories of men who are arrested because of their youth, beaten, humiliated, expelled. But they always return.”