The Occupied Poor

The 124,000 Palestinians who worked in Israel until less than two years ago - which is about half the number of foreign workers currently in the country - provided for about a million souls. There is no substitute for this.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres continues to float bold, creative ideas from time to time, in stark contrast to the other cabinet ministers from the Labor Party, from whom we hear nothing. Unfortunately, no one pays any attention to Peres, and he doesn't fight hard enough to implement his proposals. Last week, for example, he told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he is in favor of granting permits for tens of thousands of Palestinians to work in Israel. Not even Peres' disclosure that both the Shin Bet security service and certain officers in the Israel Defense Forces support this measure made a difference. Aside from a minor report in the papers, the subject did not make it onto the public agenda. Instead, Israel will this week organize an airlift to bring another 6,000 farm workers from Thailand - a workforce that could and should have been brought in from the occupied territories around the corner.

According to unofficial data of the defense establishment, there is not a single authorized Palestinian worker in Israel today. There are plenty of Romanians, Filipinos, Indians and Chinese - but absolutely no Palestinians. The labor market is Palestinian-free. In 2000 there were 124,000 Palestinians working in Israel, last year there were 4,000, today there are none. The number of Palestinians who work in Israel without a permit has also plummeted, and now stands at no more than about 10,000 to 20,000 workers, according to estimates.

As usual, there are short-term security reasons for this situation: The closure is intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country. However, the long-range results are the very opposite. Just as the internal siege may be a measure that prevents terrorism, but certainly encourages it at the same time, so the ban on the entry of Palestinians into Israel in order to make a living will turn out to be a major mistake - from Israel's point of view, too.

Without the possibility of finding work in Israel, the Palestinians will continue to be mired in a deep economic morass, and if they are not extricated there will be no possibility of making any genuine political headway.

The economic situation in the territories has reached a new and dangerous low point. With frightening unemployment figures - between one-third and half the workforce according to official figures, and in many places even more - with half the population defined as living below the poverty line, and with consumption of less than $2 a day according to the World Bank - the Palestinian economy has just about ceased to exist.

True, there are as yet no children there with the protruding bellies that are a telltale sign of starvation, as in Africa, but that does not mean that malnutrition does not exist. Open a refrigerator in a refugee camp home: you will find mainly bottles of water. Responsibility for this state of affairs devolves on Israel: not only morally, for having destroyed the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, which provided a living for tens of thousands of residents, and for closing its gates to workers. Israel is also responsible from the standpoint of international law: The occupying power is responsible for the welfare of the population under its protection. In fact, on closing its gates, Israel should have begun to distribute welfare relief or unemployment benefits to those who deserve them.

Everything has already been said about the social and political implications of distress on this scale. The security consequences are exploding in the streets of our cities. No international donation or investment is going to make much of a difference in this situation, without Israel making it possible for Palestinians to work in the country again. The 124,000 Palestinians who worked in Israel until less than two years ago - which is about half the number of foreign workers currently in the country - provided for about a million souls. There is no substitute for this. And as for the security aspect: a controlled and measured entry of Palestinians will not pose a greater danger than the poverty and misery that are rampant in the territories today. You can ask the head of the Shin Bet, according to Peres.

As usual, there is no prospect that Peres' idea will be accepted. The idea of a "Marshall Plan" that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put forward not long ago - another illusion for American eyes only - barely mentioned Palestinian work in Israel. Sharon prefers the Thais, who have nowhere to go after a day's work and are liable to generate an acute social problem, over Palestinians who will return to their families and perhaps at the same time wash their hands of terrorism. After our own poor, and well before the poor of the world, we have to tend to the occupied poor.