Otherwise Occupied / Caught Between Price Tag and Red Tape

West Bank Palestinians are unable to make ends meet as settler harassment stops them from working their land and a draconian permit system prevents them from working in Israel.

Two hours after the police and the army arrived on the scene, the Shin Bet security service also showed up at Khalil's house in the village of Sinjil, north of Ramallah. Last Wednesday, Khalil's family woke up in the morning only to discover that someone had put flammable material (plastic containers full of benzene and partly smoked cigarettes that had burned out ) underneath the pickup truck in the yard.

The Jewish settlement of Shiloh is to the east pf Sinjil; Ma'aleh Levona is to the west; various outposts are all around. An unknown visitor or visitors had also left a warning, written in graffiti in Hebrew: "Don't you touch the lands. Price tag." This is a hint, about as subtle as an elephant, for the village as a whole: Stop your land reclamation project.

In Sinjil, like elsewhere in the West Bank, Jewish settlers have blocked farmers from accessing their lands for the last ten years. For three years, the village, assisted by the Red Cross, has fought with the Occupation's red tape to return to the land. Recently, an agreement was reached whereby the farmers would go back to work some of their land (approximately 100 hectares, or 247 acres ), starting last month.

The Jewish settlers, always in the know, were waiting for them, to intimidate them and to prevent their return. The farmers were forced to plow their fields after coordinating with the Civil Administration, and only with a military escort.

But the soldiers' presence did not prevent settlers from blocking the road again on July 25 and provoking a confrontation. The Palestinians did not make it to their land on that day. Nor did they make it on the next day they were scheduled to work. That was postponed by the army. As was their next scheduled work day. And it was on that day, the third time their work was postponed, that Khalil received the direct death threat. Inshallah, work will resume this week.

The Shin Bet agent, wearing body armor, introduced himself as "Nader." Speaking good Arabic, he addressed the family pleasantly and politely, using proper, traditional greetings. Smiling nicely, he asked one of the sons "How do you know Hebrew?" and was told the obvious, "I worked in Israel." His uncle, standing behind him, muttered, "And who didn't work in Israel, until you barred the way?"

The soldiers and Nader left, only for me to discover that my car wouldn't start. Immediately, Sami was called. He listened to the engine that had sighed into silence, and dove behind the rear seat. In Hebrew, he explained to me that it was the oil pump, and sadly named all the garages in Jerusalem where he'd worked.

"I worked in Israel my whole life, 'till it was closed to us ten years ago." What do you mean, I say, you started working when you were five? "No, at 15." He's all of 35.

He's jealous of people with permits to work in Israel, and I'm reminded of the dozens of workers who, about two months ago, came - as they do every Sunday - to some of the West Bank checkpoints, held out their permits for inspection, and were told that they've been barred from entering Israel by the Shin Bet.

Why? Because. They're 40 to 60 years old, have been working in Israel at least 20 years, and suddenly they're suspects.

What felony? Who knows. I heard about them from Sylvia Peterman of MachsomWatch. She and some other MachsomWatch members have formed their own unit specializing in the battle against the permit bureaucracy. So far, during this wave of permit withdrawals, 24 workers have contacted her. But the number of suddenly-blacklisted men is much higher.

I spoke with some of the laborers: villagers, sole breadwinners for large families, angry - as can only be expected, close to despair. I also called several of their Israeli employers: a metal shop manager, an oil press owner, farmers, garage owners. All know their workers well and depend on them. They found it hard to believe that they had become suspects overnight.

One of the employers said to me, "We all served in the army. We all put shoe polish on our faces. It's not exclusive to these [security] guys. We're all capable of putting two and two together. I can tell if something is happening for no good reason. If you knew you were dealing, say, with Moshe from Rishon, that would be one thing, but here you're dealing with someone who won't show his face, who works in the dark. Go argue with him."

The employer went to several offices to try to figure out what the problem was and to fix it, and discovered just how complicated, long and exhausting the process of retrieving the permit is. There are more than a few attorneys and wheelers and dealers (including several living in West Bank settlements ) who're making a bundle off of this. Peterman and her MachsomWatch colleagues do their work for free, as part of their resistance to the occupation.

Behind the arbitrary mass cancellation of work permits lies an attempt to recruit collaborators. Several dozens of names are put on the barred-entry list, the assumption being that someone desperate enough will get hooked, and agree to give information in exchange for getting his permit back. It's happened in the past. I posed a query to the Shin Bet. Having received permission from four workers, I mentioned them by name and asked how they could suddenly have been "barred entrance for security reasons" when none of them was investigated or detained.

The response: "The assertion you made, according to which the Shin Bet operates routinely in order to cause people to lose their income for some reason, is totally baseless." And, will wonders never cease! The four individuals I specifically mentioned, they insisted, "are not barred from entering Israel at this time."

Peterman hurried to confirm this. She found that, indeed, these four are not barred from entering. She also discovered that 20 other workers who had asked for her help were "not barred from entering Israel at this time." But MachsomWatch's ordeal was just beginning: scrambling around to different offices, talking to soldiers and sending fax after fax, to prove to the computer that the workers were not barred from entering and to make sure their work permits would be renewed.

The result: One employer (of the 24 ) has already found a replacement worker. One worker is still waiting for his permit. But the rest of the barred-then suddenly not barred workers are back at work, having - just like that - lost a month or two of work and income.

Amira Hass