At a muddy construction site on the edge of the haredi settlement of Modi'in Illit, Taher, a Palestinian subcontractor from the Hebron area, is asked what he thinks of the settlement freeze.
"I'm against it. It's bad for me. I need 50 workers for this job, but because the freeze is supposedly going to shut down so much construction, they didn't get work permits," he says.
About 40 years old, wearing a hard hat, he goes on: "If I thought the land [on which the settlements were built] was going to be given back to the Palestinians, I'd be in favor of the freeze. But if anything, the [security] fence is going to be moved forward, not backward."
Behind Taher, who's been working at Israeli-run construction sites on both sides of the Green Line since he was 14, a block of low-rise apartment buildings is going up. These units are among the 3,000 in the settlements where work began before the 10-month freeze went into effect a month ago, and which are being allowed to go ahead.
On this gray, drizzly afternoon, the Palestinian subcontractor has to speak loudly to be heard over the sounds of West Bank settlement construction - drills, hammers, heavy equipment and shouted Arabic. As it is at the great majority of building sites in the settlements, the construction company running the job at Modi'in Illit is owned by Israeli Jews, while all or virtually all of the workers building the 110 apartments are Palestinians.
This has been a fact on the ground in the West Bank for the last four decades, one that embarrasses both the settler movement and the Palestinian national movement. The settlers would prefer that Jews built their homes, while the Palestinians would definitely prefer not to build the communities which, in their view, are usurping their homeland.
But there aren't many Jewish construction workers, and there aren't many Palestinian-owned construction projects (and the latter reputedly offer jobs only to workers with good connections in the Palestinian Authority).
The irony of the moment is that the Palestinian construction workers who build the settlements are not at all happy about the construction freeze. It hurts them in their wallets. Some, like Taher, come right out and say it (so long as their anonymity is protected), while others evade the issue by saying the freeze is just a bluff anyway.
"Forget it, there's no freeze," says Ibrahim, a veteran Palestinian construction worker at Modi'in Illit, carrying steel rods on his shoulder. "The settlements are like cancer - they've spread too far to be stopped."
Sa'id, taking out time from plastering a wall, does not even understand the Hebrew word for freeze (hakpa'a) or, for that matter, for settlement (hitnahlut).
"I don't want to know about Palestinians or about Israel; it doesn't interest me. I just want to bring food home to my family," he says. Sa'id added that he's been detained by the IDF five times for going to work with an expired permit, and recently spent two months in jail for this infraction.
(All eight Palestinian construction workers interviewed [in Hebrew] insisted on anonymity.)
ISRAELI OFFICIALS say there are about 22,000 Palestinians with work permits for employment in the settlements, with about half of them working in construction, the other half in maintenance and other menial jobs. Palestinian officials put the actual figure, including those working without permits, at about 35,000.
They go through a security check before getting their permits from the Civil Administration. In principle, a Palestinian must have a clean security record to get a permit. "But there are exceptions," says Salwa Alenat, a Jerusalem Arab who handles the "Palestinian desk" for the Israeli NGO Kav L'Oved (Workers Hot Line). "For instance," she says, "there are some workers who were jailed for minor infractions during the first intifada who've been given work permits."
Israeli officials don't divulge the criteria for granting work permits. Yet Taher, who's been working on Israeli-run construction sites for more than 25 years and has constant dealings with the Civil Administration, says that besides a clean security record, the applicant must be married and at least 30 years old.
Alenat, however, says there are also Palestinians younger than 30 working in the settlements; I saw some myself in visits to construction sites in Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Modi'in Illit.
(Another roughly 25,000 Palestinians have work permits in Israel proper, with many more crossing the Green Line clandestinely to find jobs. Taher says it's harder to get a work permit for Israel than for the settlements, adding that they tend to be granted only to older family men.)
Many Israelis say Palestinian laborers in the settlements insist that they're "building these houses for a Palestinian state" that will ultimately displace the settlements. I didn't hear that line from any of the workers I talked to, but I did hear - from those who didn't plead political indifference - that yes, working on the settlements went against their patriotic principles.
"If I could work in Ramallah for half the money, I'd do it, but there's no work," says Taher.
"It hurts me that they're building the settlements, but I have 10 children to feed," says Ibrahim.
At the site of an apartment project in Givat Ze'ev, Ghassan, a building engineer from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, says the 50 to 60 workers on the job are all Palestinians. "Of course I'm against the settlements, but I have no choice; I have to feed my family," he says.
After a couple of minutes, he says he feels uncomfortable talking because the foreman is watching from about 50 meters away.
The foreman, too, is Arab. "You've asked your questions, that's enough," he tells me. "Don't go around here asking questions."
Walking away, Ghassan tells me under his breath, "You see? That's the situation around here. You're not allowed to talk."
There are a lot of Palestinians employed as foremen and in other managerial positions by the Israeli companies that build the settlements. At the Modi'in Illit site, two middle-aged Arab managers are talking things over with a younger, Jewish higher-up. As his two colleagues walk ahead, one Arab manager, Adnan, agrees to talk.
"Maybe it's not good for my people, but everybody's got to make a living. If we don't, our wives will throw us out," he laughs.
He takes a fatalistic attitude toward the freeze. "[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] will sit down, and if they don't agree, the work will go on, and if they do agree, the work will still go on."
Because Modi'in Illit is a giant settlement near the Green Line that no one realistically expects Israel to give up, Adnan figures that from a Palestinian national standpoint, there is nothing wrong with helping it grow. "Maybe Israel will give back the [settlements] near Ramallah, but are the Palestinians going to come back to this place?" he asks rhetorically.
He and other Palestinian foremen and managers who work for Israeli construction companies are "thought of as collaborators by the ordinary laborers," says Alenat.
While many Palestinians disapprove bitterly of those who work in the settlements, no one seriously threatens them. They don't have to hide what they're doing. "When you have to feed your family, no one can tell you not to," says Ibrahim. Sa'id and Taher says their villages near Hebron have dozens and dozens of men working in the settlements; it's completely out in the open.
"Today I don't see any political pressure on these people," says Alenat. "Maybe there was in the past, during the Oslo Accord and in the first intifada, but now Palestinians compete with each other to get jobs in the settlements. There are Palestinian political activists who speak out against this, but they tend to have secure jobs with the PA."
Workers at the settlements defend themselves against such critics, calling them hypocrites and blaming the PA for not offering them an alternative way to make a living.
"When construction began on Har Homa [the newest Jewish neighborhood over the Green Line in Jerusalem], the big shots said we shouldn't work there," says Taher. "But who got the very first contract to supply cement for Har Homa? Abu Ala's son." (The family of Abu Ala [Ahmed Qurei], the former PA prime minister, owns a cement company in Abu Dis that was accused by Palestinians of supplying cement for Israeli projects in east Jerusalem, including the security wall. Qurei denies it.)
The Palestinians who build the settlements start their day around dawn, gathering at the major West Bank checkpoints and intersections to share cabs to work. "It costs me NIS 10 each way," says Sa'id, the plasterer in Modi'in Illit. Like many who live far from the settlements where they work, he saves on commuting time and taxi fares by sharing an apartment in a village near Modi'in Illit with other laborers. He spends his work week there and goes home to his wife, pregnant with their first child, on weekends.
The apartment costs him NIS 500 a month, cab fare comes to another NIS 400 or so and he gets paid NIS 150 a day - roughly the Israeli minimum wage - leaving him about NIS 2,500 in net pay a month. Palestinian building tradesmen with more sophisticated skills can make a lot more, and while Sa'id says his employer treats him fairly, low-skilled laborers like him who work for unscrupulous bosses can make much less than NIS 2,500 a month. Yet however much, or little, money they take home, it goes a lot further in the West Bank than it would in Israel.
AMONG THE Jewish residents of Modi'in Illit, Givat Ze'ev and Ma'aleh Adumim, some say good things about the Palestinian laborers in their midst and some say bad things. But in general, the settlers seem to accept their presence with a shrug. The consensus is that since Jews don't want to do this work and Palestinians work cheaply, the situation can't be helped.
Near the construction site in Ma'aleh Adumim, a man wearing a prayer shawl and black kippa who's just moved into his new apartment says: "We don't like it that all the workers are Arabs. It's not that we're racists, God forbid, the Arabs are no different than anyone else, but show me a Jew who will do this kind of work. Jews won't climb out on ledges and scaffolding, risking their lives like these Arabs do. And who do you think picks up the garbage in this city? The city hires Arabs because they work cheaply. But we have no trouble with the Arab workers - I bring them coffee, I bring them something to eat. We don't have any trouble because they know that if they make trouble, they'll lose their jobs."
Apparently, that's what happened a year ago, at the start of Operation Cast Lead, after a Palestinian construction worker in Modi'in Illit stabbed his Jewish boss, then, while trying to escape, stabbed three residents before being shot by a paramedic. (All survived.)
"The guy was from Kharbata [a nearby town], and afterward, 300 families in his clan lost their work permits," says Erez, a clerk in a grocery store that, being near the construction area, caters to Palestinian laborers.
Today, though, Palestinian workers and haredi residents shop side by side in the grocery store. "There's no tension," says Erez, a returnee to religion who once attended a wedding in Kharbata hosted by a Palestinian foreman who'd been a regular customer.
"Jews from all around here drive to Kharbata to get gas, to get their cars washed, to shop for building materials," he says. "People here have their political views - so do I - but it doesn't affect how we treat individuals, whether they're Arabs or Jews."
A pair of students at a local yeshiva for married men, however, says some of the women in Modi'in Illit are afraid to be around the Palestinian workers. "I'd rather we had Chinese workers than Palestinians," one of the students says, "but on a day-to-day basis, we have no problems with them."
At a snack bar that sells lottery tickets in Givat Ze'ev, the owner, Amnon Rahamim, has nothing but praise for the Palestinian construction workers in town. "We know them, they're the best - maybe even better than the Chinese and Thais," he says. Asked if there were any conflicts between the residents and the laborers, he says, "The opposite. I have a Palestinian working for me," pointing to a suddenly self-conscious young man behind the sandwich counter.
Asked if they talked politics, Rahamim says, "Not much. It's a delicate subject. I understand that these people are being incited in their villages."
A customer says, "They shouldn't be here. Jews should be doing the building here, but the Arabs are cheaper."
Says the owner: "The construction companies don't use Jews for the same reason Adidas doesn't manufacture shoes in the United States. It's the power of the marketplace."
OF THE 121 settlements in the West Bank, at least a few of the most radical ones are off-limits to Palestinian workers. "As a matter of ideological principle, we've never allowed anybody but Jews to work here," says Yigal Amitai, spokesman of Yitzhar. "I know that Bat Ayin has the same policy, and I assume some other communities do as well."
He says Yitzhar doesn't allow in any gentile workers of any nationality. "No Thais, no Romanians, just Jews," Amitai says by phone. "There's a lot of unemployment, a lot of new immigrants need work, so why give it to my enemy instead of my people?"
In the background over the phone, a woman is saying that because Jewish construction workers are "more expensive," they've been priced out of the market. Amitai replies, "If it's important, if you try, you can find Jewish construction workers. They just cost a little more."
There are some Jewish construction workers in Israel, mainly Russian immigrants. There are also Israeli Arabs and, of course, Chinese, Romanian and other foreigner building tradesmen. Some can be found working at construction sites in the settlements, but most work within the Green Line. The reason that Palestinians do the great majority of building in the settlements is because of economics and accessibility, says Shlomo Ben-Ezri, a regional director for the Contractors Association.
"If you're building a project in the settlements, it makes sense that you're going to hire workers who live nearby instead of workers who are spread out all over Israel," says Ben-Ezri. He insists that Palestinian wages are no lower than those of Israelis, but that both Palestinians and Israelis are much cheaper for building contractors than foreign workers, whose hire carries steep overhead expenses.
The unlawful exploitation of foreign workers by Israeli employers is a well-known problem, and Alenat says Palestinian construction workers get mistreated at least as badly.
"They have the same legal rights as Israeli workers, but most of them get cheated one way or another," she says. "Some get paid half the minimum wage, some get a third. There's a widespread practice of not paying overtime, not giving sick leave or vacation leave or severance pay. Palestinians have very little redress, so a lot of these employers think they can get away with anything. They make workers do all sorts of extremely risky things. I have dozens of cases of Palestinians who've been badly injured on the job and gotten nothing - no medical treatment and no compensation."
Still, the fight to get these jobs is so desperate, she says, that some Palestinians have been known to inform on their rivals to Israeli authorities.
At an apartment project being built in Ma'aleh Adumim, a Palestinian worker is cementing a curb while another is sweeping up debris. Sitting in the tractor is a Jew of about 50. "There are about 2,000 construction workers in this city," he says, exaggerating greatly, "and all of them are Palestinians except for a couple of Jews like me."
Sounding slightly defensive, he explains, "I drive the tractor and they work with their hands, but we're all the same. We all work together, we all eat together."
Asked about the construction freeze, the tractor driver, a Jerusalemite, shakes his head. "The inspectors were here and they shut down some of the jobs. It's not a problem for me, I can get work anywhere, but what are these people going to do?"
Calling over the young man from east Jerusalem who is cementing the curb, the tractor driver asks him in Arabic what he thinks of the freeze, then translates his answer: "This is our livelihood, I don't care about anything else, I have a wife and children at home. I also have to support the wife and children of my brother, who died of a heart attack."
The tractor driver and several settlers I talked to stress that the freeze is hurting the Palestinian workers above everyone else. "If they don't work, they won't eat, and then they'll start throwing stones and there'll be another intifada. Is that what Obama wants?"
He calls over the Beduin from Jericho who was sweeping up the debris, saying with rough humor, "If this mule doesn't work, who's going to feed him?" The Beduin, who looks about 40, laughs wildly and nods his head. n