Just Pawns in Their Game

Hatzor Haglilit was quiet yesterday. Most of the stores in the town center were closed at noon. That's how it is when there are no customers; a northern siesta.

At the entrance to the Pri Hagalil plant in Hatzor Haglilit is a pile of used tires, just waiting to be lit. A huge "Welcome" sign invites visitors to admire the impressive factory building, painted in red and yellow. Only the ominous silence and the empty parking lot hint at the events of the weekend. An armed guard patrols the locked grounds of the closed factory. No one enters, or leaves - silence upon the face of the deep.

Two days ago, on Friday, Reuven Ben Haim and Yisrael Sarousi finished their late shift, unaware of what was about to unfold. Moments before the start of Shabbat, at sundown, the phone rang. It was the warehouse head, who said: "Don't come in Sunday, the plant was closed." At that moment, Ben Haim and Sarousi's world crashed down around them. Not that it was totally unexpected. For two weeks now they noticed that the management was removing all the factory's products, but still their hearts refused to believe it was really happening. Both men considered waiting until after Shabbat to break the news to their families, but there was no point: Several of their combined dozen children - Sarousi and Ben Haim have six each - already knew, after seeing it on the Internet.

'Job security isn’t a luxury,' says one sign at a protest by Pri Hagalil workers facing dismissal.
Yaron Kaminsky

Hatzor Haglilit was quiet yesterday. Most of the stores in the town center were closed at noon. That's how it is when there are no customers; a northern siesta. The alternatives to Pri Hagalil, the town's main employer - a restaurant, a childrens' clothing store and a gift shop - were all desolate.

Economic meltdown

Ben Haim moved into a small one-room apartment three months ago, after the impossible economic situation took its toll and unraveled his family. His wife and their six children stayed in the nearby housing project. Of the NIS 7,700 he brought home every month from Pri Hagalil, including overtime work, NIS 5,000 goes to child support, NIS 1,500 for rent and NIS 700 to the Bailiff's Office. A warning letter from the local council carries more bad news: He owes the municipality NIS 27,000 in back property taxes.

The apartment is barely furnished; a few friends brought an old refrigerator and some blankets. Ben Haim serves coffee to Sarousi and me. It's their first day of unemployment, and they're both depressed. Both men were born in Hatzor Haglilit and worked at Pri Hagalil for more than 25 years. Sarousi is a maintenance worker, mostly on the corn processing machines. Ben Haim is a ammonia refrigeration technician. Both are softspoken, impressive and very moving.

Yesterday morning they woke up and went to the factory as usual. They met a few coworkers at the gate. They waited and waited until they realized that nothing was happening; not now, maybe not ever. Their union leaders drove off to meet Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, and the rest of the workers dispersed.

Ben Haim left for nearby Safed for a medical examination. He knows he may be urgently called to the factory - after all, he is in charge of ammonia safety, and has a special pass from the management.

When I ask him how he felt after the phone call on Friday, Ben Haim says that both he and Sarousi need to see a psychologist urgently.

"I'm serious. We need mental help," Ben Haim said. "This has been going on for too long and affects us very badly. They should make up their minds if they're closing the factory or not. We're living in uncertainty for more than a year now. People just don't know what will happen next."

Sarousi: "I couldn't believe it, having just come back from work. But I also felt indifference. I don't care what will happen next. We've reached the point of no return." This was my third visit to Hatzor Haglilit and the factory in the past few months. Ben Haim and Sarousi feel they are pawns in the power struggle between the factory owners and the government, but this time it might be the end game. Sarousi will probably register for unemployment, and Ben Haim's future seems even bleaker. He believes he will have to leave his apartment and pitch a tent in front of the local council building. He says his children will need food from charity, since he can no longer support them. His voice broke, for one brief moment, when he related trying to explain the situation to his 8-year-old son.

Both men, who are in their fifties, said there are others who are even worse-off: "There are several couples who both worked in the factory. For us it's death. For them, it's death to the power of two."

After a moment of silence, Ben Haim proudly displays a few cans of tuna, packed at Pri Hagalil. "We're planning to come out with tuna with lemon, and tuna salad," he said. Then he produces a faded black and white photograph from the 1960s, of six smiling young women in the factory yard. The one on the left is his mother.