If this isn’t collective punishment, then what is collective punishment? If this isn’t arbitrariness, then what is arbitrariness? And if this measure doesn’t ignite a fire in the relatively tranquil West Bank town of Yatta, then what is the measure intended for? Yatta is distraught, its economy is threatened with collapse, and all because of one person who transgressed, because of whom Israel is punishing an entire town.
Up until a few months ago, over 7,000 residents of this town in the south Hebron Hills had permits to work. Of them, 915 residents with the surname Abu Aram worked in Israel and hundreds more in the settlements, according to the Palestinian District Coordination and Liaison office in Yatta. But those workers then lost their jobs in Israel and the settlements solely because of their names, in the wake of an astounding, draconian decision of the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the West Bank. In desperation, dozens even changed their names in their ID cards, but to no avail. Their way back to work in Israel, where they’ve held jobs for years, is blocked, though they have done nothing wrong. Here’s what happened:
Last August 2, a 19-year-old Yatta resident, Ismail Abu Aram, stabbed Niv Nehemia, the deputy manager of a supermarket in the Israeli city of Yavneh, wounding him seriously. The assailant was arrested. The next day, the authorities decided – in accordance with standard procedure after a terrorist attack – to bar the assailant’s family from entering Israel. The ban was lifted 10 days later, family members returned to their jobs in Israel and the settlements, and Yatta resumed its usual way of life.
However, on December 14, for no apparent reason, Israel suddenly remembered the incident and reintroduced a sweeping ban, which affects thousands of people, without prior notice or explanation.
Although such measures are the regular Israeli practice after attacks, this time it is unprecedented in scope. Abu Aram is the largest hamula (clan) in Yatta. According to activists, work in Israel and the settlements sustained thousands of its residents. The laborers and their families are now condemned to unemployment and hardship because of the stabbing perpetrated by Ismail, although the majority of them don’t even know him.
Since the ban, the town has been distraught, its economy in serious danger. Thousands of providers have been idle at home for four months, debts have accumulated and weddings canceled, checks are bouncing, stores are empty and children have dropped out of school. According to cautious estimates, the town, whose residents are almost entirely dependent on work in Israel, now has a shortfall of hundreds of thousands of shekels in income per month.
This week, Yatta’s townsfolk held a meeting to vent their distress and protest. More than 100 men came to a restaurant at the entrance to town. In advance of our visit, some had prepared posters in broken Hebrew to express their outcry: “Workers against punishing,” “No to stinging policy.” From the hill on which a mosque is perched, more and more men descended, most of them middle-aged, their faces sunburnt and unshaved, their hands the hands of laborers, sporting cheap plastic watches – the builders and pavers of the land, now denied of the opportunity.
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These are the people who get up each day at 3 A.M. to start work at 7, in Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh or Ashdod, returning home after dark. Now they are languishing at home, angry and frustrated. Almost all of them speak Hebrew. They displayed their work permits. The pink documents pile up on the table; some are still valid, others have expired and cannot be renewed, and none of them will allow them to enter Israel to work now. And it’s not only manual laborers who are affected: Merchants and even people in need of medical treatment are denied entry to Israel due to the “Abu Aram” closure.
We’ll use only their first names here, because they all have the identical surname, to their misfortune. Naim, 52, father of eight, works for the Jerusalem-based Bardarian Bothers, whose company carries out infrastructure projects and earthworks. In fact, about 300 members of the family work for this company. Naim has been employed there for 13 years. On the day after the attack in Yavneh, he got up in the middle of the night to go to work, but at Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem was sent home together with hundreds of others from the clan. He was told that the ban would be lifted in 10 days.
And so it was. A week and a half later, everyone went back to work, happy and relieved. Then came that black day in December, four months later. That night, at the checkpoints they pass through on the way to work – Tarqumiya, Meitar and Checkpoint 300 – they were told: Everyone from the Abu Aram family, go home. For half a year, at least. Their Israeli employers were also notified: Do not employ anyone with the prohibited surname.
The workers were devastated, Naim among them. “We went home and we’ve been at home ever since,” he says, embarrassed. Quite a few of them have tried their luck again at checkpoints during the last few months, and all were sent home. Those who made several attempts had their permits confiscated too – not that they would be of any use.
Work permits usually have to be renewed every six months. Here’s Sabar’s permit, which was valid until March 10. Mohammed’s permit was in force until February 14. They throw the papers on the table in the way that playing cards are flicked onto the green velvet of a casino table; maybe the magic will work and their validity will be restored. “Exit permit for work in Israel. Work during all hours of the day. In Israel, other than in Eilat. Signed, Yitzhak Levy, staff officer for employment.”
The men went to the offices of the Civil Administration and to the District Coordination and Liaison unit, in Hebron, and all the way to the administration’s main headquarters in Beit El. No would even listen to them, let alone offer explanations. Only one officer was willing to tell them that the order had come from above. How far above? There’s no knowing. They also tried their luck at Hebron city hall, but no one there could help them, of course.
Nasser, a scrap-iron merchant, is idle. He’s 51, the father of nine children. Six years in the same line of work, he says: “It’s really bad, bro’. We’re suffering.” Mahmoud, 43, with five children, worked as a delivery person for the Levy Brothers for the past 11 years: “Someone who’s gotten used to being in Israel his whole life – can he work in the territories? There’s no work in Yatta. At first we would get up in the morning and go to the checkpoint. Now I get up in the morning and fight with my wife. We want what we say to reach them [the Israeli authorities].”
Mohammed, 42, is also spending his days at home. He works for Y.D. Barzani, a Jerusalem-based construction firm that had been bringing 10 workers from Yatta to their projects every day; now they’re all here, trapped at home. According to their permits, they should now be building in Har Hotzvim, the high-tech industrial zone in Jerusalem. His 12-year-old son approaches; we were told he dropped out of school because his parents don’t have money to buy him notebooks. “There’s not even 2 shekels [55 cents] to buy something at recess,” one of the men says. Others note that a few of residents have been arrested by the Palestinian police because of bounced checks and unpaid debts.
Some of the more resourceful jobless people in Yatta went to the local branch of the Palestinian Interior Ministry in order to change their names. Sabri Abu Aram became Sabri Hassin, Mahmoud Abu Aram turned into Mahmoud Mahmed, Radi Abu Aram morphed into Radi Gabrin. The names were changed on their ID cards – here they are, for our perusal – but it made no difference at the Israeli checkpoint: The ID number was the same.
Nasser, the scrap-iron merchant, has a question: “Say we go now to the main road. We want to make a demonstration of peace. Want to say only that we want to live. The army is nearby. On the hill, five minutes away. Any chance that they will come and you can talk to them?”
Ibrahim says that if there’s a thorn bush in the garden, you uproot the bush, not the whole garden. Ibrahim, who’s 52, describes himself as a peace activist, which is possibly why he’s been denied entry to Israel for the past 20 years. He estimates that 30,000 people are directly affected by the ban, and in their wake the entire town of Yatta, because of the money that has stopped flowing in. The stores are empty, he says.
“They see us as an enemy. But this is a policy that will raise the level of violence. Don’t your people understand that? We are acting in favor of closeness and peace – but this is working in the opposite direction,” says Ibrahim. “We would like the left in Israel to feel the pressure. To raise the matter even in the Knesset. We have already written letters to all the peace organizations.”
Asked for comment, the spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told Haaretz: “On August 2, 2017, Ismail Abu Aram from the village of Yatta carried out a stabbing attack in Yavneh, in the course of which a civilian was badly wounded. As a result, the permits given to members of the [Abu Ram] clan were immediately frozen.”
It’s said in Yatta that before 1967, there were many more surnames in town. After the Israeli conquest, all the branches of the big clan were registered under the name of the mukhtar, the headman, Abu Aram. Now they’re being punished.
The idle laborer Radi asks whether the Israelis treated the (Jewish) murderers of the Dawabsheh family in Duma in the same way.
I ask Radi, “Are you at least sleeping late in the morning now?”
“What do you mean sleeping, we have all kinds of thoughts and worries.”
They collect their permits from the table and tuck them deep into their pockets, their hidden treasure, and slowly make their way home.
Ibrahim, the self-described activist, called on Thursday to tell us that the day before, four men from the Abu Aram clan in Yatta went on an outing in the Judean Hills. In the late afternoon, as they made their way down a ravine leading to the Dead Sea, they heard cries for help. The men came upon a couple of young Israeli hikers, from Be’er Sheva, who had lost their way and were exhausted. They hoisted the hikers onto their shoulders, carrying them from the riverbed to their vehicle. After reaching the main highway, the couple called the security unit from the nearby settlement of Carmel for help.