Despite already being 57 years old, Ihsan Abu Sitta didn’t heed his family’s urging that he stop working in Israel. The daily wages he earned in Tel Aviv were three times higher than what his married sons – a carpenter and a bakery worker – earned in Nablus. His youngest son, Hassan, said his father cared deeply about supporting his large family, and therefore he thought the wage differential justified the difficulties of entering Israel without permits, the constant fear of arrest and the pain of being cut off from his family. He came home only once every two or three weeks.
On Saturday, five days after Abu Sitta died on the job, his house in the Askar refugee camp, near Nablus, was still filled with friends and relatives paying condolence calls. But no one spoke much.
“We’re still in shock, mainly over the reports of how he died,” said Hassan, 27, who is studying education at Al-Quds University.
Ziad Abu Sitta, a relative, agreed. “It hurts to think about Ihsan’s last hours, to know something happened to him at work and then, people say, his employer threw him out into the street and abandoned him there, without even calling an ambulance,” he said.
Many of the relatives over 40 have worked or still work in Israel, and have come to know Israeli society up close. “This is very rare behavior,” said one. Added another, “In Israel they collect stray cats from the streets, so it’s hard to grasp how they behaved as they did to Ihsan.”
When Abu Sitta was finally taken to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, a nurse tried to contact his family. Unable to read the Arabic names in his cellphone’s contact list, she dialed a number at random. Fortunately, it was that of a relative. The news reached Abu Sitta’s immediate family in Askar at about 5:30 P.M. on Monday, September 16, several hours after the incident. Only later did they hear, from the Israeli media, how he died.
Abu Sitta never told his wife and children - three sons and four daughters - much about his job. They knew he worked in construction, but not how long he had been working for his latest boss, whom they knew only as Rafi. Abu Sitta hadn’t had a permanent job for a few years; he went from one temporary job to another.
Though he didn’t have an Israeli work permit, during Ramadan he received a 30-day permit to visit relatives living in Israel, which he used for work. “If 1,000 [refugee] camp residents are working in Israel with permits, another 1,500 camp residents are working without permits,” one Askar resident said, in a somewhat exaggerated description of the Gordian knot in which the two sides of the Green Line are bound.
Nor is this the only Gordian knot. Abu Sitta belongs to a large Bedouin tribe from the Be’er Sheva area, and many of its members are Israeli citizens living in the Negev or in Jaffa. Still others live in the Gaza Strip.
Ziad Abu Sitta said he thought the tribe originally came from Africa, since many of its members have black skin, but he doesn’t know when, or why, or from what part of Africa. Through the years, clan members sought work in agriculture, and settled down in the coastline villages. Ihsan Abu Sitta’s parents were among the 1,100 people expelled from the village of Saqiya, east of Jaffa, during the 1948 war. Some fled to Jordan, others to Gaza and still others to the West Bank.
Abu Sitta’s savings from his work in Israel enabled him to add two floors to his small house in Askar, for his married children. Six years ago, he underwent a cardiac catheterization, but that didn’t deter him from continuing to work in Israel.
He visited home for the last time over the Rosh Hashanah weekend, the week before he died. He stayed five days, but even then didn’t rest: He built something for a neighbor.
Hassan says he thinks his father began working in Israel about 25 years ago. For years, until the second intifada erupted in 2000, he had a steady job with a contractor in Netanya, who was allowed by Israeli authorities to employ a Palestinian.
Abu Sitta’s only sister, Rajaa, added something his children didn’t know: He started working at age 16, for Israel’s Mekorot Water Company. His father had wanted him to study, but young Ihsan was bothered by the family’s poverty and determined to help support it, she said.
Their mother Fatma, now 75, had only two children, and she was always bothered by the long separations from Ihsan, said Rajaa. Since his death, she has sat curled up on the mattress, dry-eyed, unable to speak.
Hassan said they haven’t told her, and never will, that her son was thrown into the streets of Tel Aviv to die.