Workers and bombers, north and south

In 1995, when Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel first became intense, the public was inclined to place the blame on the 130,000 or so Palestinian laborers commuting daily to Israel, even though there was no evidence linking them to these acts. Though Palestinians had been commuting to work in Israel since 1967, the advent of suicide bombings in the 1990s created a link in the public eye between their presence, the Oslo agreement, and the upsurge in terrorism. Consequently, the public outcry against the consequences of the Oslo agreement grew; eventually it would lead to the assassination of PM Rabin and contribute to the decline of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In the absence of a security fence, the borders between Israel and the West Bank were wide open to infiltrators of every kind. At the time, the only possible link I could find between Palestinian labor in Israel and terrorism was the notion that Palestinian workers were quietly collecting intelligence on possible targets such as bus lines and key junctions where soldiers and others congregated–something they could do without arousing suspicion. Nevertheless I felt sufficiently concerned to suggest that the government temporarily end Palestinian labor in Israel.

In order to avoid the inevitable and disastrous economic consequences, the government could transfer the workers’ salaries to them inside the Palestinian Authority. Although this would cost Israel money, it seemed a worthwhile investment because it might save the peace process.

The Rabin government and its successors eventually did phase out Palestinian labor, but without compensation. They replaced Palestinian commuter workers with guest workers from all over the world, from Thailand to Turkey. The result has been aggravated economic hardship for Palestine, and a host of new problems for Israel in dealing with the socio-economic ramifications of hosting hundreds of thousands of imported workers, many of whom have become illegal immigrants. As for suicide bombings, even when, eventually, no Palestinians at all worked inside Israel, the rampage never diminished. The only really effective measure against bombers has been the security fence.

Nonetheless, the public continues to associate Palestinian laborers with terrorism. The logic goes as follows: if Palestinians who cross into Israel carry out suicide bombings, then keep all Palestinians–whether day laborers, illegal migrants, or car thieves–out of Israel. The fence, of course, does precisely this. Yet the state of security technology today enables us to use the fence to filter rather than completely prevent the entry of Palestinians. Worker visas in the shape of magnetic cards, coupled with electronic fingerprint or handprint identification, make it possible to monitor and track every worker who enters Israel through secure gates in the fence.

The Sharon government prefers to phase out the remaining Palestinian laborers by 2008 and rely on Chinese, Thai, Nepalese and other workers. This may be helpful to the economies of the Far East, but it is devastating for Palestinians. Further deterioration in the Palestinian economy makes it harder for Palestinians and Israelis to coexist in separate states, contributes to the rise of the radical Islamist movements, and generates more terrorism. If, in contrast, Israel were to present a green-line based fence to the Palestinian public as a way of making it possible for large numbers of Palestinians to work in Israel again, then Palestinian (and international) opposition to the fence might be reduced.

Beyond these local security and economic considerations, there is an additional aspect of the Palestinian labor question that has broad regional implications. In a way, we confront a classic "north-south" issue. Like other post-industrial economies in the US and Europe, Israel requires cheap imported labor to do jobs that Israelis no longer agree to do. This makes it a magnet for manpower from the surrounding, less developed Arab states. If an Egyptian can earn eight times more doing menial labor in Israel than working–if he can find a job at all–in Egypt, he will take considerable risks to reach Israel. Hence during the relatively quiet and prosperous years of the early Oslo period Israel was "invaded" by more than 100,000 Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian illegal laborers, many of whom remain to this day.

If Israelis want to retain a relatively high standard of living within a Jewish and a democratic state, we have to find the least problematic way, from the economic and security standpoints, to 1) import labor, 2) ensure it does not remain in the country and does not endanger us, and 3) not further impoverish our neighbors in the process. The fence, coupled with new technologies, points the way.