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Unemployment surging among Palestinians

JERUSALEM—Most days Ahmed S. arrives before dawn at a trash-strewn hill where he sets off to sneak into Jerusalem and his construction job. But on this day, he got a late start, and his chances of getting to work were fading fast as the sun rose and he saw Israeli border police patrolling near a checkpoint.

Following a group of schoolchildren, Ahmed made a break for it, snaking through a dirt parking lot before quickly turning back. The soldiers had spotted him, and he couldn't afford to get caught again. Last month, they nabbed him and made him sign an agreement to pay 5,000 shekels—about $1,200—if he were caught again trying to get into Jerusalem.

More than 1 of every 5 working Palestinians once held a job in Israel. Now it's 1 of every 10. And the options for workers such as Ahmed are rapidly, and literally, being fenced off.

Just down the road from the checkpoint, long lines of concrete slabs are waiting to be added to Israel's controversial security barrier, the newest part of the country's campaign to wall itself off from the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Once the 400-mile barrier is complete, it will be exceedingly difficult for thousands of illegal workers such as Ahmed to sneak into Israel, and that's likely to deepen the economic crisis in the would-be Palestinian nation.

Before the suicide bombings and assassinations of the last four years, Palestinians and Israelis had visions of intertwined nations fueling each other's economies.

But when the hopes of peace were shattered by the stones and bullets of the Palestinian uprising, Israelis began disentangling themselves economically from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They closed borders, imposed curfews, set up roadblocks and established checkpoints that the World Bank warns are "slowly strangling economic life."

Before the uprising, more than 134,000 Palestinians were working in Israel or at its settlements—almost equal to the number working in the Gaza Strip.

Now, that figure has plummeted to fewer than 48,000, with nearly half—by some estimates—entering Israel illegally. Palestinian unemployment has more than doubled in four years, to 28 percent. The situation is likely to get worse.

While the Israeli government says it's willing to grant work permits to as many as 35,000 Palestinians, that's only for the short term. As part of his plan to evacuate all 21 Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also plans to end work permits for Palestinian workers from Gaza within three years.

The barrier, too, is taking its toll. At Jenin, a hotbed of militant resistance in the West Bank, illegal workers who used to cross a hillside to work in Israel now have to trek as far south as Jerusalem, circumvent the barrier and come back toward Jenin. A trip that once took minutes now takes hours.

Over the last two years, Lt. Col Hidai Zilberman has become an expert on border crossings. As a top Israel Defense Forces commander outside Jenin, Zilberman studied America's Operation Gatekeeper along the Mexican border for lessons.

"If you take the terror out, we have exactly the same situation," he said during a patrol of the security barrier. "Very poor on one side, and rich on the other."

"But here it's human lives," he added. "If I don't catch someone, a half-hour later they may be setting off a bomb. But a Mexican girl that is running across the border to work won't do as much harm in human life as the Palestinian girl."

Zilberman is sympathetic to Palestinians trying to get into Israel to work. He's also a realist. The prospects for peace may have been bolstered in recent weeks by the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas, his pragmatic successor. But when asked whether he sees a day when Israel will be willing or able to dismantle the security barrier, Zilberman shook his head.

"I'm very optimistic about the peace process," he said. "But I think part of the stability is knowing who is coming and going from Israel."

There are those who want Israel to find ways to keep Palestinians working in Israel, with the World Bank leading the calls.

"One could argue that you could maintain the existing number of jobs going into Israel—with the difference that they would all have permits," said Nigel Andrews, West Bank and Gaza Strip director for the World Bank. "One would think that would increase security."

Andrews said he was hopeful that Arafat's death would mean a fresh start.

"There are many Israeli policy makers who believe that it is not in Israel's security interest to have a decaying economy right on their doorstep because of the additional level of discontent that breeds," he said.

That could be a good sign for Palestinians such as Ahmed, who left his family in the West Bank town of Hebron when work there dried up.

But not on this day. Ahmed headed back to his apartment and worried that his job wouldn't be there tomorrow.

"It's no good," he said. "No good for my work—or for me."

Asked what he planned to do, Ahmed shook his head.

"I have no idea," he said. "Stay at home?"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-BORDER

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