Ali and Mohammed Abu Saima Nir Kafri
Ali Abu Saima and his brother Mohammed at home with their family. Photo by Nir Kafri
Text size

It started over a month ago in Rosh Pina, a picturesque village in Upper Galilee, while I was on a vacation that was totally ruined by telephone calls. The first call was from the sister of two Palestinian workers who entered Israel without permits, to earn a living and provide for their families. She told me her brothers had been caught in Israel and arrested.

Maybe I could help find out where they were being held, she asked. I could. And maybe I could find four Jews to post bond for her brothers in an Ashkelon court, she asked the next day. I couldn't.

Two more days went by and one of the brothers, Ali Abu Saima, 33, was released.

Maybe, he asked, I could transfer money to his jailed brother's canteen account via the postal bank so he could buy cigarettes? I could.

And maybe, Abu Saima asked a few days later, I could also help him retrieve his own personal effects, which were taken from him when he was incarcerated in the Ashkelon facility and were not returned when he was released? I couldn't.

And so it went, and on and on. The relentless series of ordeals undergone by these workers, with their far-reaching implications, continued to gnaw at me. So not too long ago - during the Feast of the Sacrifice - I went to the West Bank to Abu Saima's home. I suggested that we go for a drive so that I could see the route he takes to get to work in Israel. Abu Saima took along his three-year-old son and also invited his brother-in-law, who, like him, is "illegally present" in Israel during the week.

I got to know the route bit by bit. First we drove through the main streets of Hebron, which were bustling on the holiday. Then we passed peacefully through the streets of Dura, which were broad and quiet and lined with handsome, well-kept homes; rumor has it that this is a town of collaborators. At Dahariya, we left the main road and navigated through twisting lanes and courtyards in order to see where workers wait for the vans to pick them up. On regular days, Abu Saima gets here legally via two taxis - from his home to Hebron, then from Hebron to Dahariya - paying NIS 7 for one and NIS 3 for the other.

From here, he and his friends continue to travel legally, but within a short time a dirt trail splits off from the main road; there are no signs to direct you here. The trail snakes and meanders amid splendid scenery, though that is not what draws hundreds and thousands of men here every day. Soon the dirt trail becomes an obstacle course, potholed and bumpy. In short, not fit for my car, though Abu Saima continues to drive a few more kilometers quickly and adeptly before giving up. Now he leads us by foot to the top of the hill so that I can see - and fill in the rest of the scene in my imagination with his description - the dangerous continuation of the workers' route as far as the separation fence. For this part of the route, which is extremely steep and demands daring, and along which the workers travel packed like sardines in terrain vehicles, he pays NIS 50.

For a long time we stood there, three adults and one small child. The evening darkness swooped down swiftly atop the hilly area, though it was not long before it was illuminated by an almost-full moon. We stood there, imbibing the restorative air and the silent, indifferent, endless expanses. But our minds were far from being at ease. We smoked cigarettes, we contemplated the slope below us over and over again, and Abu Saima described the long journey he has been making for years on his way to renovating homes in Israel, to provide for his wife and two children.

Two entities, as one

At this point along the route, the drivers are in close contact with their counterparts who are waiting inside Israel, on the other side of the fence. The latter provide constant updates on the movement of Border Police jeeps: "Jeeps approaching, wait." They wait. "All clear now. Go." They go. "They're coming back. Stop." They stop.

There are times when it takes many hours, and sometimes the entire whole day, just to get to the fence, and other days on which the crowded vehicles with their heavy human load speed down into the steep ravine, cross it, and reach the security barrier in a few minutes. The barrier is actually an electronic obstacle which stretches for kilometers and is not to be crossed. Not because a slight touch electrifies and kills you - heaven forbid, that would be too horrible and no one wants evil on that scale - but because the fence is smart: When touched it instantly activates a whole system of sensors and signals that betray you and your exact location.

But at the place where the workers cross there's a section made of ordinary barbed wire; every few days someone does some cutting and thousands of people seeking a livelihood sneak through the breach. Every few days the hole is mended, then cut again, and so on and so forth. That's the way of the world in these parts. Nor is it any great secret: Whoever needs to know about this, knows; the workers do, and presumably the army does as well.

Occasionally, the army decides to catch a few workers, and this rugged terrain becomes the scene of wild pursuits. Sometimes tear gas is fired, as are bullets of various kinds, and people are wounded and sometimes killed. Sometimes. But very often nothing happens. It's once more into the breach for the workers. Because how could it be possible for a population of hundreds of thousands of people to be forced to go hungry? Such a powder keg could explode into an uprising that would endanger not only Israel but also the Palestinian Authority, which Israel wants to preserve and protect, and with which it cooperates in matters both great and small, in deeds both fair and foul. To the point where ordinary Palestinian citizens, in particular the hardscrabble types, see the two entities as one that abuses them, thrusts them between a rock and a hard place. In fact, these days their anger is aimed far more at their own authorities than at Israel.

In any event, the workers continue to cross from there to here, while a blind eye is necessarily turned: tens of thousands of workers - tens of thousands of tired people, most of whom are for the present reconciled to their fate and no longer take any interest in the high political echelons and the manipulation which dictates their daily routine. All that interests them is their working day and their salary; they slip through the tears in the fence and are swallowed quickly into vehicles waiting for them on the other side, which take them to Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and points north. That part of the journey costs each of them another NIS 200. The math is easy. The cost of traveling one way comes to NIS 260, but it is impossible to calculate the cost in blood, sweat and tears (real or symbolic ). As for the loss to Israel and to us citizens, who by these methods gain no strength, neither in terms of security or morality, but only become ever more entrapped in this continuing folly and deception - I can only guess at the extent of this loss, in horror and anger.

Tales and trials

But Ali Abu Saima's story has another interesting chapter. For not only was the man caught and given a five-month sentence and a fine of NIS 4,000, both suspended. And not only is he now stuck at home, jobless, with nothing to provide his family, and in fear of punishment, should he be caught again, which will be imposed without a trial. That's not all. It's that in the wake of his and his brother's arrest very unpleasant things are happening that are worth relating, because they show how much God, or the devil, is really in the details.

The tale, which has not yet reached its tail end, is as follows: On that day of the Feast of the Sacrifice, after we got back from our outing, I left Ali's home in the evening with NIS 2,000 in my purse. He gave me the money to help pay another fine of NIS 3,000, which had been imposed on his brother who was caught with him. Besides the fine, the brother, whom we will call Mohammed, was sentenced to a month in prison. The fine had to be paid by a specific date; otherwise he would spend two more months in prison. With help from my friends and from me, I quickly collected another NIS 1,000 and went to a branch of the postal bank in my city to transfer the money to Mohammed's canteen account, so that he would be able to pay the money on time and be released at the end of one month.

When my turn came, I gave the clerk the account number and handed him the money. But the computer screen announced that the amount was too large; it was impossible to deposit that amount in a prisoner's canteen account. I called Ali to consult with him, but he was at a loss; all he knew was that the deadline for paying the fine was in two days.

I sat on the metal bench in the post office and started to make phone calls; this went on for about an hour and a half. Again I crisscrossed the country, from south to north and back, this time by means of a mobile phone, in the post office. I contacted the Israel Prison Service, where I was patched through from one prison to another until I got to Shikma Prison in Ashkelon, where Mohammed had been incarcerated at first. I was told he was in Damon Prison (which was later evacuated during the Carmel Forest fire; thankfully he did not have to undergo that frightening experience ). I worked my way back through all the numbers until I got to the prison. An automatic recording informed me that visitors were not allowed in, and then went silent.

I got back to Shikma. A different clerk advised me to contact the courts system; maybe they would know what had to be done. I called and was routed and rerouted until I reached a human being who suggested that maybe I should try the military courts. Someone there checked the prisoner's ID number and found they did not have any such prisoner and sent me back to the civil courts. This time, as far as I can remember, I called the information center of the Collection and Enforcement Authority of the civil courts: they, I assumed, would certainly know how one pays fines. And indeed, through them I reached an automatic service through which I could pay off debts - but not those of an "illegally present" person.

Returning to the national information center of the courts, I pursued the whole phone-number gamut until I finally reached the Magistrate's Court in Ashkelon, where, so I thought, my client had been tried. Indeed, at this stage I was thinking of him as "my client." Where there are no lawyers, I would be one, I mused to myself - and not without a dollop of logic, because Mohammed really did not have the money to pay a lawyer. But the Magistrate's Court in Ashkelon sent me to its counterpart in Ashdod, because it turned out that my client had been tried there. At last, a clerk there told me that yes, this is the place, that I could pick up the only form there which I could use to pay off the fine.

"I live in Jerusalem - maybe you can fax me the form?" I asked. No, the clerk replied firmly, the postal bank will not take payment via a faxed form. "Wait a minute," I implored her, "I will ask the clerk here. Wait - don't hang up," I begged, and scuttled toward the teller at the branch where I was waiting; one hand held the phone of salvation to my ear, the other clutched scraps of paper with the many phone numbers I had used before reaching the right one.

"I'm waiting - what is it with you, what are you worried about?" the clerk on the phone said, a bit amazed. "Okay, do you hear that?" I asked. "The clerk here says I can pay via a fax as long as the details are clear. Just a second, I'll give you the fax number of the post office." But the clerk in front of me said the fax in the branch was on the blink. So I went home to receive it; indeed, as promised, the proper document from Ashdod Magistrates Court was waiting for me. I filled it in and returned to the post office.

"You could have gone to Ashdod already," the postal clerk joked. He then entered the form into the machine, typed the amount, handed me the stamped notification of payment and bade me farewell, saying "Hope you get some good news."

Ultimately, the payment reached its destination and Mohammed was released within a few days. But now I have another document, which continues to irk me: a small yellow sheet, already wrinkled, at the top of which is the logo of the IPS, and the heading: "List of the effects and money of the prisoner/detainee." I received the form from Ali, together with the NIS 2,000.

In sloppy handwriting some employee in the prison system, whose name was hard to decipher, had written the following on it: "1. Cash: NIS 300; 2. Mobile phone; 3. Brown wallet; 4. Case for mobile phone." Under "the declaration of the prisoner/detainee," Ali confirmed with his signature that all the details were correct. He doesn't read Hebrew, so he couldn't read the court transcript either, but the list was accurate. The items remained in the prison, however, because it was evening when their owner was released and the storage room was already closed.

Ali was told he could come back another day, show the yellow form and receive the things. But how can he come if he is not allowed to enter Israel? Ali did not get his ID card back either, which is a very serious matter, since under law he is supposed to carry the card at all times, and his identity is in any case of questionable legality owing to the present circumstances of his life.

'Judicial balance'

The transcript of the trial held on October 27, 2010 in Magistrate's Court in Ashdod, in which Ali and Mohammed Abu Saima were convicted, shows the judge wavering. On the one hand, she believed that economic hardship drove them - and many others like them - to do things that land them in their hundreds in Israeli courtrooms. At the same time, one of her central considerations was "the serious security situation in which Israel finds itself and its need to defend its borders against those who would attack it." She sought to strike a balance, and said: "The need to struggle against illegal entry and presence is clear, but distress and the search for a livelihood are also at play. Balance is the name of the judicial objective."

Was the judicial objective of "balance" achieved? Mohammed, who had already been caught and convicted twice before, was sentenced to one month in prison and a fine of NIS 3,000, plus a three-year suspended sentence of six months in prison and a fine of NIS 12,000. Ali, with a "completely clean" record, was sentenced to a five-month suspended sentence and three years of probation.

In reality, the "judicial balance" looks like this: In the town of Halhul there is now a house with 14 occupants - parents and their children and a sick grandmother - who have nothing to live on. Literally nothing. The reason is that there are not enough jobs available in and around their village. There is no real industry there and the small local plants, businesses and contractors tend to employ family and friends.

In Israel there is a demand for the able working hands of Ali and Mohammed Abu Saima. Contractors and home owners contact them and ask imploringly: "Are you coming on Sunday? I have a big tiling job." The men say: "Okay, I'll come. Can I come without a permit?" But the response is: "No, I can't do that, bro - get a permit, it's risky for me not to have one. Please understand my position, pal."

Thus the tiling job in Ashdod went down the drain as did a renovation job in the city, as well. I heard both conversations with my own ears - two days after Mohammed's release. Both he and Ali know that sometimes friendly and affable relations exist between the Palestinian workers and their Israeli employers. Some of the latter even invite the workers to their homes, generously, and don't always stick to the letter of the law when it comes to the permits.

Soldiers, too, are sometimes lenient. On more than one occasion, in the dark of night, Ali and Mohammed spent a little time in the company of soldiers who caught them but then sent them on their way, in order to make the crossing at an advantageous time and place. A young soldier, who suddenly becomes the omnipotent "master" that determines the fate of two brothers and their families, apparently finds it difficult at times to carry out his orders in full.

"We are sorry for what we did," the accused were quoted as saying. But that Hebrew statement, which the trial transcript attributes to Mohammed and Ali, is simply not consistent with the next sentence: "We only came to work."

However, the two men, now idling away the time at home, are clearly very sorry for one thing: that they were caught and are now afraid to gamble on their freedom and on thousands of shekels they don't have. And so upsetting is this impasse that there's no knowing whether the two will embark again on this dangerous journey, across the steep rocky hills and to the breach in the fence -just to find work.

And they could earn a good daily wage because they are skilled craftsmen, assuming they are not caught or jailed, or worse: find themselves in hospital. Because the judge was right when she described these journeys "as hazardous to human life." And Yusra, the men's sister, is justified in being afraid that her brothers will not get home safely.

Such was the case on November 27, when a dozen workers from Nablus and Jenin were trapped in a van that overturned when the driver tried to outrun a Border Police jeep near the community of Nes Harim in the Judean Hills. I personally saw the ambulances arrive one after another at the Betar checkpoint, to pick up the injured men. I found no report in the media of this large-scale accident. Apparently, these people are of no account - whether they cross the checkpoints and barriers safely or not.

"Our life here is broken," Abu Saima told me in a quiet voice, as we looked together from the heights of the bare hills toward the fence below, where a Border Police jeep was pursuing a van that was smuggling workers. The van sped away fast and the jeep returned, maybe to hunt down another vehicle or maybe just to frighten people.

The prison service responds

Eventually there was a happy end to the story involving the yellow note and the ID card and wallet and mobile phone of Ali Abu Saima. But it must be said that it was preceded by a few things - among them, a query from Haaretz and a reply from the spokesman of the Israel Prison Service. He responded as follows: "In a case in which a resident of the territories is released directly by the court or late in the day, in the wake of the decision to free him, it is explained that the effects he deposited will be forwarded to the relevant authority closest to his place of residence, so that he can pick them up. The IPS makes this clear prior to the release and ascertains the transfer of the said deposited effects. In regard to the prisoner you asked about, following his release at approximately 6 P.M. by the court, the procedure was explained to Abu Saima and also what he had to do in order to get back the deposited effects."

This reply delayed us en route to the happy ending, and unfortunately was far from accurate. It was in fact explained to Ali Abu Saima that he would be able to pick up his effects at the International Red Cross office in the area of his residence. But there it was made clear to him that it was actually the Palestinian Authority that was in charge of this matter. However, in the offices of the PA he was told that his effects were likely to arrive in about 10 months.

At that moment, Abu Saima needed to muster a lot of patience. We went to wait with him, briefly, at the "container checkpoint" which separates the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. There IDF soldiers explained that the validity of the document he had, entitled "Confirmation of an inmate's term in prison" - the only, meager proof of his identity - had expired three days after he left prison; more than a month later he was still walking and traveling around the country illegally, without an ID card. Nevertheless, after a considerable time the soldiers allowed him to continue on his way north.

Now we can finally get to the happy ending - which all of us, some less and some more, deserved. One important thing worked in Ali Abu Saima's favor. It turned out that, contrary to what the spokesman said, the IPS did not ensure the transfer of the deposited effects to any place at all; they were kept at Shikma Prison. Thus, one month and three days after his release, upon presentation of the yellow note and a power of attorney (which a certain person went to great lengths to obtain in Halhul, even though she was prohibited from entering that town ) - thanks to this, on November 29, 2010, the IPS returned Abu Saima's wallet, phone and ID card to Michal Tsadik and Hagit Beck, who went there especially for that purpose. Members of the Machsom Watch organization of Israeli women who oppose the occupation, Tsadik and Beck have voluntarily carried out similar missions more than once. Perhaps that shows that there is some sort of discreet routine, maybe even a kind of procedure, in place here, but this was not explained to Ali Abu Saima. At least his effects are in his possession now.

Logical conclusions

At one point, Ali Abu Saima asked me: Why does Israel employ workers from distant countries instead of us Palestinians, who live here and have no way to earn a living? 

Central Bureau of Statistics data refer to Palestinian workers from the "Judea, Samaria and Gaza District" under the rubric of "workers from abroad." Here are the details:

Workers with permits: According to the CBS (thanks to the very courteous assistance of a clerk in the bureau, who made a distinction for me between "workers from abroad" and others in the statistical tables ), there are 33,000 of these.

Workers without permits: No official estimate exists. Kav La'Oved, an Israeli NGO which helps Palestinian and foreign workers, estimates that there are at least 10,000 in total, and 5,000 working in settlements in the territories. The Palestinian workers' own estimates are far higher.

People seeking work who are refused entry into Israel: These are known as Shin Bet security service or police "refusals." A few years ago, Ilan Paz, the former head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, estimated their number to be about 180,000 in a conversation he had with activists from Machsom Watch. This number remains basically unchanged, according to the organization. Sylvia Piterman from Machsom Watch explains that those denied entry by the Shin Bet can get the prohibition lifted in the following ways:

1. By undergoing the simple administrative procedure of appealing it, by means of a lawyer who must be paid, or by enlisting the help of a human rights organization; the refusal is lifted in 30 percent of the cases this way, but if that fails ...

2. The people involved can go to court, which entails a fee of NIS 1,646 or NIS 1,809 and payment of a few thousand shekels to a lawyer; the ban on entry is lifted in about 80 percent of the cases this way.

It follows from these data that refusal of entry is imposed sweepingly and arbitrarily on tens of thousands of Palestinians who want to work, and is not in fact based on concrete security considerations. Human rights organizations - which are unable to say who came up with it - say the policy of turning a blind eye to tens of thousands of people crossing into Israel in search of work derives from the fact that the closure of the territories is simply irreconcilable with the needs of the public: In Israel there is work and a huge demand for workers; in the territories, there is less need for them. But they want to and must work in order to exist.

Ali Abu Saima told me that, too.