These Jobs Are Peace Casualties
To keep Israeli-Palestinian peace alive, Israel will boot foreign workers
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
Romanian worker Marian Manciu has been in Israel for three years taking menial jobs in restaurant kitchens and at construction sites. He has met an Israeli woman whom he wants to marry.
His biggest problem is that his passport is still in the hands of his last employer, which, like many Israeli manpower agencies, illegally keeps workers' passports until the job is done.
But to many Israelis and Palestinians it is Mr. Manciu, and others like him, who are the biggest problem. In fact, if Israel and the Palestinians agree on little else, it is that Israel's 200,000 to 250,000 foreign workers must leave the Jewish state.
To them, the fragile future of the peace process depends on it.
When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally shook hands Wednesday, they pledged to continue on the road to peace but announced no breakthroughs.
Officials now say, however, that Mr. Arafat and Mr. Netanyahu did reach a number of "understandings," chief among them a plan to allow more Palestinian laborers to cross the borders of the West Bank and Gaza self-rule areas to work in Israel.
Israel has kept a partial closure on the self-rule areas for security reasons since a wave of Islamic suicide bombings six months ago, but Palestinians decry the closure, which keeps them out of work, as collective punishment. Both sides recognize that one crucial thing Netanyahu can do - without making difficult territorial concessions - is alleviate Palestinian economic adversity.
A government spokesman says Israel wants to allow at least another 15,000 Palestinian workers into the Jewish state, for a total of 50,000.
But that would require Israel to round up some foreign workers here - about half of whom are illegal - and deport them en masse.
Last week, Netanyahu's cabinet voted to do just that. Soon between 500 and 2,000 illegal foreign workers will be deported every month.
Reminders of Nazi camps
Under the recommendation of the labor ministry, such action would require transit camps where deportees will be held until they are sent back to their countries of origin.
Mere mention of words like 'deportations' and 'transit camps' set off alarm bells in some corners of the Israeli public, where such terms are inextricably linked to the Holocaust perpetrated against Europe's Jews by Nazi Germany.
But officials say it is the only way to keep track of people scheduled for deportation.
Even local human rights organizations have stopped short of condemning the measure, saying it may be a humane way for deportees to be ensured a speedy hearing and safe living conditions.
Just like US, Europe
Crime, too, is an issue. Like migrant workers in the US and guest workers in Europe, Israel's imported laborers are being blamed for rising crime rates in places like Tel Aviv. Israelis were at first happy to see workers who harbor no political enmity against them replace Palestinian laborers who do.
But now, fears are growing that workers from places like Romania, the Philippines, and Thailand will prefer to stay in flourishing Israel rather return to third-world poverty.
Despite the foreign-worker controversy, there hasn't been xenophobic violence against them like that seen in Western Europe.
But Israeli papers carry many reports on the taxing effect the workers will have on the education and health care system if they stay.
Those who come to Israel to earn the minimum wage of $3.14 an hour - if they can get it - are finding today's living conditions spartan, if not appalling.
Advocates at the Worker's Hotline, however, say that living conditions are not even their chief concern.
They're concentrating on getting the government to crack down on manpower agencies that confiscate passports of workers and hold them as collateral until work completion. Manciu says his last employer is demanding a $1,000 fee in order to get the passport back.
"The problem is the employers," says Worker's Hotline coordinator Hanna Zohar, "and deportations will only help the employers. Every worker who will complain of conditions will be expelled, and others still working will think twice."
"It's not fair. It's like a little Mafia out there," Manciu says, shaking a head of long blond hair.
A Roman Catholic, he needs his passport so he can go to Cyprus to marry his fiance, a Jewish Israeli.
Their marriage is impossible in Israel, where there are no civil ceremonies.
And because of stories of intermarriages like theirs - some of them paid marriages of convenience - the religious right, empowered by Netanyahu's victory, is reportedly fueling the sudden willingness to return to local Palestinian labor.
But more than that, many Israelis say they feel they have a duty to employ their Palestinian neighbors first and foremost. The Palestinian Authority (PA) says unemployment has soared to 51 percent in Gaza and 40 percent in the West Bank.
Many seek promised land
Still, the new policies may not stop workers from poor countries from trying to reach the promised land in search of prosperity.
Tourists have regularly been coming on visas and just staying.
And just last week week, the Israeli army turned back a group of people on camels trying to sneak in through the Egyptian border. They had come all the way from Chad - about 1,000 miles through the desert.