(photo credit: Rafael D. Frankel)
On Monday night at 10:30, three Border Police officers make their way in silence through an apartment building under construction in Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood.
Jamie, the commander of the all-volunteer unit, leads the way up the dark staircase past exposed insulation and wiring protruding from the drywall. A flashlight in one hand, an M-16 in the other, he turns the handles on locked doors of every apartment unit until he comes to the third floor.
An open door leads him to what will one day be the living room of a Jewish family but today is a glimpse into the ongoing battle of the Border Police against Palestinian infiltrators - most of whom are simply looking to support their families in the increasingly destitute Palestinian territories, but some of whom have far more malicious intentions.
"Wake up, wake up," Jamie says in his American-accented Hebrew. "Stand up and come to me one at a time with your hands up."
One at a time, with their hands up, 13 Palestinians - none of them look to be over 30 years old - come toward Jamie from two separate bedrooms and line up facing the living room wall as commanded. Ortal, a 22-year-old student from a moshav close to Ashkelon, guards them as Aharon, a 25-year-old just released from the army two weeks ago, sweeps the rest of the apartment.
Jamie finds one man that speaks passable Hebrew. He will act as a translator for the next two hours, whenever Jamie needs to give orders to the group as a whole. The first order: "Tell them not to look at me," he said, unsure if their expressions are hostile.
Once all 13 are in the living room, Jamie waits for backup. "Until we check them we have to be very careful," Jamie says, standing in the silent living room as cement dust, illuminated by his flashlight, swirls in the air. "We have no idea who they are."
In the rooms the men have vacated, mattresses, blankets, and work clothes are thrown on the floor along with the basics for Arab workers: cigarettes, cell phone chargers, canned food and pita.
As it turns out, all but one of the men are who they appear to be - construction workers who are building this apartment and a few other structures in the area. A thorough search of each one on the street below, and of their few possessions in the apartment, reveals no threatening items. A bag briefly thought to contain marijuana turns out to be a bag of tea, and none of them make any false moves or show the slightest signs of hostility toward the police. But none of them have permission to be in Israel either, and one has a previous criminal record.
Last week, Jamie's patrol in Har Homa turned up three wanted men, and during previous patrols they have arrested people whom internal security later deemed possible terrorists.
"Most of them are just guys trying to find work, but the last suicide bomber in Tel Aviv [on April 17] came through here," Jamie said.
According to the construction workers, it is easy to get through to Jerusalem from the territories despite what the government says is an increased army and border patrol in the areas where the security fence remains incomplete.
"I walked here from Abu Dis," Ali Salam, 23, said outside after police took down his details and he waited to be released. "When the soldiers aren't looking we just walk around them."
Salam said he used this same procedure six times in order to make his way into Jerusalem for the construction work that pays him NIS 200 per day - far more than he can make in his hometown of Yatta near Hebron, when there is work at all.
Once inside the capital, Salam generally stays for a week or two, sleeping at construction sites with fellow workers as he did on Monday night. A similar phenomenon can be found in Mevaseret Zion, Beit Shemesh and other Israeli towns close to the Green Line.
This is the first time Salam has been caught by police. Since none of the men are wanted by security forces, they are escorted by police to the nearest city on the other side of the security fence and released there.
The workers are only part of what the border police are after. Just as important, if not more so, is information which could lead them to the contractor who brought them here. It is a matter of treating the problem by stopping the demand for the labor, Jamie said, rather than the supply, which will never cease.
In this case, Salam names an Arab-Israeli contractor as the one who brought them here to work. But because they are paid in cash, and have no contact information for their contractor, who shows up every day only to give basic instructions on the work, it is doubtful the name is real.
"One time we caught three guys with pay stubs from checks and time cards; it made it really easy to catch the contractor," many of whom are Jewish, Jamie said.
Contractors who are caught employing illegal Palestinian laborers can go to jail for up to a year. But this one has gotten away - at least for now.
Tomorrow, a closer look at the volunteer border policemen and their relationships with the Palestinians.
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