The reports about their death are marginal news items. A sentence in a newscast, if at all, a couple of lines in the newspaper, sometimes not even that. Every few days, sometimes more than once a day, a construction worker falls to his death or is injured on the job somewhere in Israel. They have no name, no age and no place of residence, nor even a face or a mourning family – everything human about them is alien to us. There is no one to eulogize them, no one to speak in their praise, no one to relate how they died. A construction worker fell – and that’s it. Even youths with knives at checkpoints get more attention. Construction workers are transparent in their lives on the scaffolding and equally invisible in their deaths.
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They are the people who build our homes, the builders of the land, the last of the builders in the Zionist project. In boiling heat and biting cold, they’re on the scaffolds, from the crack of dawn until dusk, shadows of people whose existence no one notices, whose death no one cares about.
Love of construction workers ceased in this country once the workers ceased to be Jews. Almost no one is brought to trial for their death, which is almost always due to the criminal negligence of the employers – and this attitude, too, it must be admitted candidly, is also the result of the workers’ origins, which makes their existence synonymous with “cheap lives.”
They’re usually Palestinian or Chinese. They live like flies and they fall to their death like flies, too.
Mohammed Hussein was the 23rd construction worker killed this year and the sixth in the month of August, as far as is known. Twenty-seven years old, he took a wife two years ago and built her a house. He leaves behind a year-old infant, a young widow in late pregnancy, bereaved parents and siblings, who this week sat in their home in the town of Biddya, in the central West Bank, mourning heir loved one.
Here, there are no national flags or victory posters; Hussein was not a shahid, a holy martyr, or hero. Still, everyone in his town knew that he’d been killed, and the townsfolk directed us to his home this week.
Just 10 minutes from the urban settlement of Ariel, Biddya was, until the second intifada, a symbol of the years of plenty that came with commerce with Israel. It was the Shabbat shopping mall for Israelis before there were air-conditioned malls all over the country, and before there was an intifada of suicide bombers. The town has remained relatively affluent, most of its young men work in Israel and almost everyone speaks Hebrew.
In front of the neighborhood grocery, next to the mosque, in the town’s eastern section, Mazen Yaqub, who works with aluminum, shows us the way to the home of the parents of his neighbor and good friend, the late Mohammed Hussein. Before that, he shows us the new house that Mohammed built: a stylized, well-designed structure, with terra-cotta colors. Hussein built it with his own hands over the course of seven years – whenever he had a little money, he added another pillar, another wall, until it was finished, ahead of his wedding. Now the new house stands forlorn: The mourners have gathered in the home of the parents, walking distance from there.
The expression on the face of Ziyyad Hussein, the bereaved father, as he opens the door, is a mixture of weariness, grief and astonishment. Who in Israel is taking an interest in his son’s death? Since Mohammed was killed last Wednesday, August 23, no one has called Ziyyad – not the company he worked for, nor any Israeli government official. No condolences, no expression of sorrow. No one even bothered to explain what happened, how his son was killed. He saw the body, inside a body bag, at the foot of the skeleton of the building, a short time after the accident. The father himself was working a few hundred meters away from his son that day. Both were helping to build Bnei Brak, a largely ultra-Orthodox city adjacent to Tel Aviv.
Ziyyad, who has a permit to work in Israel as did his son Mohammed, is a veteran of construction sites – 35 years on the scaffolding, in every Israeli town you can think of. He’s 56, the father of seven, and he works very hard to provide for his family. He gets up at 3:30 A.M. each day so as to be at the construction site by around 6 A.M., after enduring the humiliations of the checkpoint and the other ordeals of the journey. A bus for laborers with a driver from the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasem takes him and dozens of others to their jobs via the Na’alin checkpoint.
Ziyyad workday ends at 4 P.M., but it’s almost dark by the time he gets home. For five days a week of this, he earns between 5,000 and 6,000 shekels a month ($1,400 to $1,675).
At the age of 19, immediately after completing high school and passing his matriculation exams, Mohammed also started to work in Israeli construction jobs. He’s the only son that followed in his father’s footsteps; the other two sons run a bakery in Biddya. Mohammed’s first job was in the settlement of Elkana. He then switched to Bnei Brak. In the family’s hometown, it’s said that “half of Biddya is in Bnei Brak.”
Mohammed’s life was a bit more comfortable than his father’s. He made more money because he was younger, and he was also able to leave home later every day, around 6 A.M., because the contractor at his site has the workers picked up.
In recent months, the two members of the Hussein family worked at amazingly close sites, the father on Sokolow Street, the son on Chaim Pearl Street, for different contractors. “Each for himself,” Ziyyad says. They never traveled to work together, never came back together, never met in Bnei Brak. Ziyyad only saw for the first time his son’s place of work, so close to his own, when Mohammed’s body was lying there.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Mohmmed married a girl named Zuhur, from his town. She’s now 20. They moved into the new house around the corner from where we are; their first child, a son, Abdel Qader, was born about a year ago. Zuhur is expecting another son in a month. Here’s a family photo in the cellphone of their neighbor, Mazen Yakub: mother, father and baby in a moment of joy, less than a month ago.
On Tuesday evening last week, Mohammed went to his parents’ house with Zuhur and Abdel Qader. It was his custom to go there after work for supper or coffee. Afterward, Ziyyad went to bed and the young family went home. The next day, at around 2 P.M., Ziyyad got a call from his son’s place of work on Sokolow Street: Your son, Mohammed, was killed in a fall. Ziyyad immediately dropped what he was doing, and a driver rushed him to the construction site. He arrived just as his son’s body, wrapped in a plastic bag, was being placed in an ambulance. He was able to identify Mohammed – his face looked “regular,” he says – before being taken for questioning by the police about his son. Afterward the father went home by taxi.
All Ziyyad knows is that Mohammed fell from the fifth floor of the shell of the building he was working on. That’s the entire extent of the information he has. His son’s body was taken to the forensic medicine institute at Abu Kabir in Tel Aviv and was returned to the family the next day. Mohammed was buried in the Biddya cemetery.
After Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which takes place this weekend, Ziyyad will return to his job in Bnei Brak. He says that Allah decided that his son would live only 27 years. That eases the grief somewhat. Mazen, the neighbor, says that if Mohammed had been an Israeli, his death would have been treated differently. Mazen himself had a fall four years ago, when he was still a construction worker, from the third floor of a building on Sokolow Street, but fortunately he sustained only light injuries.
Work has been temporarily halted at 15 Chaim Pearl Street. In the heart of Bnei Brak, opposite a self-styled “small yeshiva for outstanding young people,” stands the frame of a narrow, tall building. The notice boards are calling for worshippers to attend the Selihot prayers, recited before the High Holy Days. The driver of a truck carrying boards, who’s parked next to the building site, says quietly, “It’s all one big crime,” and points out some highly visible safety flaws.
This construction site has no sign listing the name of the contractor or other professionals involved. Nothing. Only a pair of medical gloves lying on the ground attests to what happened here. No great expertise is required to spot the dangers that lurk at this site. A pile of cinder blocks perched at the edge of the second floor threatens to fall on us. The narrow walkway on the fourth floor, on which workers are standing, seems to hang by a thread. The safety inspectors of the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry were unaware of the existence of this site, so they never visited it.
It’s a safe guess that work here will resume soon, as though nothing happened. No one has talked to Ziyyad about compensation and he has no idea what to do.
In Biddya, a baby boy will be born in a month, named Mohammed, after the father he will never know.