One Drop in a Sea of Despair

How typical: As the debate raged between the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces over authorization of the plan to beef up the "seam zone" (the area of the 1967 Green Line), no one considered the implications of the concept for those who would become its victims.

How typical: As the debate raged between the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces over authorization of the plan to beef up the "seam zone" (the area of the 1967 Green Line), no one considered the implications of the concept for those who would become its victims.

We are interested solely in ourselves, the commentators expatiate only on the flaws (severe in themselves) of the decision-making process, and everyone ignores the serious ramifications the plan will have for the lives of the Palestinians. Creating a closed military area in populated regions - which in practical terms means more houses demolished, more land expropriations, more closures - is not something that has to be given thought. The important thing is security - only of the Israelis, of course, or at least the impression of security.

The problem is that the victims of the plan will be not only the Palestinians of the "seam zone." Because underlying this latest fantasy of how to pursue the war against terrorism - which includes opening fire on hard-pressed people, and establishing detention compounds and building fences - is once again the old Israeli concept of aggravating the life of all the Palestinians and not doing a thing to relieve their plight, even by a little, and all in the name of security.

"There is a government in Jerusalem," the prime minister rightly asserted in the light of the outrageously excessive freedom of action taken by the chief of staff, Lt. General Shaul Mofaz. But that government is about to adopt another harmful plan, and harmful to the Israeli interest, too. Every day tens of thousands of Palestinians knock on Israel's gates: They will do anything and everything to get a day's work in this country. They have no other place to make a living apart from Israel, they have no other way other than to sneak into the country illegally, and they have nothing to lose but their poverty and their children's hunger.

According to the data of the defense establishment, between 30,000 and 40,000 Palestinians succeed in entering Israel every day, despite all the plans involving seams and all the closures. They are a drop in a sea of despair. They can be seen in their "infiltration zones" - the garbage dump of Umm al Fahm or the hills of Jenin - hiding for hours from the soldiers and police who pursue them like hunters in a forest, putting themselves at risk of being shot, leaving themselves open to humiliation, detention, fines. Most of them are young, but you see quite a few elderly people, too. Nothing will stop them - not detention compounds and not fences. They have to make a living somehow.

To understand their motivation it's necessary to grasp the depth of the Palestinians' poverty and distress. Besieged towns and villages where the rate of unemployment sometimes exceeds 60 percent, an economy mired in stagnation and which has no prospect of recovering in the siege conditions imposed by Israel, families that are reducing the amount of food they eat to a point where it puts their children at risk, and a desperate routine of life of hundreds of thousands of jobless, who have no reason to get up in the morning.

It is not only in Israel's clear interest to improve their lot and remove them from the cycle of despair that is also the cycle of violence - it is also Israel's legal and moral obligation to ensure their livelihood as long as it is the occupying power.

Before the start of the current intifada, about 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel every day, and about a million Palestinians lived from the money they earned. Their contribution to the Israeli economy was far from negligible. Many of them now long for those other times, when they were permitted to work in Israel, even under exploitative conditions. Hardly any terrorists came from the ranks of those who had work permits. They entered Israel quietly day after day, built its houses, cleaned its streets, worked its fields, washed its dishes, and left.

A million Palestinians whose plight was eased, 120,000 Palestinians who had something to lose. How many does the defense establishment allow into Israel these days? It's hard to believe, but with the exception of a few hundred who were given permits to help with the olive harvest in Galilee for a limited time, no Palestinians have permits to work in Israel. That is a serious mistake from Israel's point of view, and now, precisely in this period of suicide bombers and other terrorism, is the time to correct it.

It's difficult to understand what the Israeli authorities are thinking: that the Palestinians will make a living from the air around them? That their children have no needs? That their severe plight is a good thing for Israel? That there is a connection between Palestinians permitted to work in Israel and suicide bombers?

The solution lies not in "seam zones" or in detention compounds, not in opening fire at people who are after work or in creating more victims. Israel, rather, must open its gates wide immediately for as many Palestinian workers as possible. That will be good for them and good for us. The equation of more workers equals less terrorism is solid: 120,000 workers in Israel is not 120,000 more terrorists but the opposite. Virtually all of them can be removed from the list of potential terrorists.

Let the defense establishment for its part supervise those who enter, but without opening fire and without detention compounds. By the way, there are some in the defense establishment who don't dismiss the idea of Palestinian workers, who understand the benefit to security that will result from opening the gates. (We only have to hope that their interest is not to extort more workers and turn them into collaborators.)

Even a prime minister like Ariel Sharon and a populist defense minister like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer can find reason to take a step that will make things a bit easier for the Palestinians. Such a move, in addition to injecting money into the pockets of hungry people, will also infuse them with a little hope. It's not a lot, as in any case the majority will not be allowed in or won't succeed in finding work in Israel; but these days, when everything looks so bleak, it's something.