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Job-Seeking Palestinians Pierce Israel's Barriers

Closing West Bank, Gaza may stop bombs but not ambitious

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Daoud's van is full of dates, big crates of them, plump and freshly picked from the orchards of Jericho. Suddenly, his driver veers up a rocky dirt road, over the winding hilltops of the disputed West Bank. After 10 minutes of bouncing past trash-strewn ravines and the occasional Bedouin shepherd, they arrive in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Mission accomplished: to enter Israel without passing through an Israeli Army checkpoint.

"The office that gives me a stamp to bring in my dates is closed today," says Daoud, a Palestinian produce wholesaler. Daoud's mountain detour ends 100 feet beyond the Israeli roadblock and a five-minute drive from downtown Jerusalem. "Usually I don't do this," he says.

But the fact that it is so easily done is disturbing for Israelis. Their biggest worry is that Daoud's dates could have been dynamite sticks. Yet, to Palestinians, it is Israel's strict policies on entry of goods and workers from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel that has forced them to seek ways, legal or not, to improve their deteriorating economic situation.

At a time when progress in the peace process seems elusive, dwindling Palestinian incomes are having a more profound impact on their politics. Warnings that their patience is growing thin are supported by new evidence that so too are their wallets. Since 1992, per capita gross national product has fallen 39.4 percent in the West Bank, according to a new United Nations study. And of the total labor force of 521,000 Palestinians, about 50,000 are regularly allowed into Israel. At certain times - such as a recent alert that an Islamic militant group was planning a bombing - almost none are allowed in.

"People are telling us on the street, 'We were better off before the peace process,' " says Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Analysts worry that under such circumstances, the atmosphere is ripe for the kind of deadly fighting that broke out in late September, killing 79 Palestinians and Israelis.

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