Rooting out Palestinian illegal workers

Israel Police has stepped up its efforts to stop the flow, with nighttime raids increasingly common.

Pal illegal work 298.88 (photo credit: Rebecca Anna Stoil)
Pal illegal work 298.88
(photo credit: Rebecca Anna Stoil)
Eyes still cloudy from sleep, the prisoner looks at the border policeman who has led him to the steps of the charter bus. Inside, a handful of other detainees are sitting, some returning to the sleep from which they had been awakened. "What," the man asks. "All this is just for us?" The casual answer is yes. Throughout the past week, as part of new operational priorities, Israel Police have stepped up their efforts to stem the tide of the thousands of Palestinian illegal workers who stream from the West Bank into Israel every week to seek out employment. Last weekend alone, police caught 1,634 who were working in Israel illegally. For Border Police teams in the Southern District - from Kiryat Gat in the north to Eilat in the south, the challenge is compounded by the enormous area covered by the district, as well as the still-porous and largely unfenced border with the West Bank. For the men and women of the units, the hunt is a grueling, house-by-house and rooftop-by-rooftop procedure. It is about an hour after midnight, and a convoy of two Border Police jeeps, a command and control car, a charter bus and a pickup truck leading the vehicles to suspected hideouts winds its way through the silent streets of Beersheba. There are no cars on the broad boulevard to notice when, at a radio command from the lead truck, the vehicles suddenly make a quick u-turn across the carefully-groomed divider. The line of vehicles turns and turns again, entering a new neighborhood, with white hi-rise apartments shining under the light of a full moon. Some of the buildings are already inhabited, and the sleeping tenants are unaware of the operation about to begin across the street. The convoy turns once more, and parks in front of a partially-built apartment building, where jeans and tennis shoes dangle from the grey windows of the concrete facade. "This is it," says "Pinchas" - the man in charge of directing the convoy - over the radio. Two jeepfuls of Border Police enter the building, and their flashlights light up the rooms, one by one, as they move along the halls, floor by floor. "They were here, but they left," one disappointed-sounding policeman tells the officers waiting below. "There's clothing and the beds are still warm. But we can't find them anywhere." Supt. Oded Aflalo, the unit's commander, lights a cigarette, and offers them around. But Pinchas is unsatisfied. "Go back. They have to be somewhere. Try the basements." When yet another sweep of the building turns up a mere three workers, Pinchas himself decides to join in the search. "He has a sixth sense for the workers. He can find them anywhere," Aflalo says, nodding in the direction of Pinchas. But when Pinchas himself limps back empty-handed a few minutes later, laughing off claims that he slipped and fell in the unlit structure, all that is left to do is to remark on his unusual run of bad luck, and move on to the next building project. Building sites are the main focus of searches for such illegal workers, many of whom end up sleeping at the sites where they work throughout the day. The workers often sleep on improvised pallets, and have no access to running water or bathroom facilities. More than once throughout the night, police entered half-completed luxurious private houses where the workers had turned the basements into impromptu toilet facilities. "In the summer, they sleep on the roofs," said Supt. Dudu Marciano, an officer in the operations division of the Southern District Border Police, as enlisted border policemen and women searched for ways to scramble up on to the slanted roof of an almost-complete villa in Beersheba. Lior, a slim young man whose uniform hangs loosely on his rangy shoulders, is the unit's "monkey man," revealing an impressive ability to chin himself, pull himself or climb up walls. Marciano gives the young man a "leg up" by allowing him to use his back as a platform. Soon, Lior's voice is heard below. "Get up, get up," he says in Arabic. "Good morning," he tells the workers in Hebrew. The scene is repeated dozens of times throughout the night, in Beersheba, Sde Boker, Mitzpe Ramon, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Dimona. Workers, exhausted from a hard day's work in the Negev sun, are escorted down from rooftops by police officers, who accompany them to the clean, brightly lit charter bus which will drive them back to the West Bank. Marciano says that he has ordered four such buses for one night, and points out that the distance from Beersheba to the Green Line is short enough that the buses can make multiple trips should the need arise. The district-wide operation is commanded at the highest level by Southern District Border Police Operations Officer Dep.-Cmdr. Nissim Sa'ar. Only repeat offenders are arrested after being caught. The others are photographed, fingerprinted, entered in police databases and checked to make sure that they are not wanted for questioning regarding any criminal or security-related matters. Following that process, the workers are dropped off at the nearest checkpoint. In Dimona, local police officers lead Border Police to a semi-abandoned building, once neighboring the now-abandoned "House of Jewish Tradition." Rags and sheets used as curtains wave in the windows. Police run up and down the stairs, knocking on doors. The building is inhabited exclusively by men, most of whom tell the police that they are from Nazareth. "The ones from the West Bank are all together on the bottom floor," the workers tell police, who have already made the same discovery. Another handful of Palestinians are escorted out of the building and onto the bus. One of them, an elderly man, has drawn the sympathy of the police officer who found him asleep. "He was so old, I felt bad even waking him up," said the barely 20-year-old border policeman. "He must have been at least 90. Why is he even stuck working in construction?" Not all the illegal workers, though, are employed in construction. When a Border Police jeep drove into the Beersheba market as workers unloaded the morning's produce, some men dropped what they were doing and fled. On a second patrol through the market, the stall owners, who had been overseeing the work before, were unloading the trucks alone. "See how upset they are?" Marciano pointed out. "Now they have to do all of the work themselves." Police emphasize that it is the employers - as well as the other members of the illegal workers' industry - that need to be the primary target of police crackdowns on Palestinian illegal workers. "If we go after the support structure, then that helps to combat the phenomenon itself," said Marciano, who added that forces operating in the field have noticed that members of the support structure - such as employers and the drivers who smuggle the workers into Israel - have become much more wary, and have been forced to operate in a less visible manner than before. In the first four months of 2006, 239 Israelis were arrested for employing illegal workers, but senior Border Police officers emphasized that the employers are the toughest link in the system to crack. "You need specific intelligence evidence to catch them on the scene while illegal workers are doing the work, and to prove that that specific person was responsible for employing a specific illegal worker," said a senior officer. For those who are caught, employing illegal workers is a criminal charge that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Sentences range anywhere from six months in prison to community service. The vast number of Palestinians working in Israel has begun to attract more attention from the highest levels of the security services as well. According to police, the workers are often used - sometimes without their knowledge - as intelligence gatherers for terror organizations. Terrorists learn about weak points from speaking with such workers, and plan their attacks according to information garnered from them. Would-be terrorists also frequently follow routes used by the illegal workers to enter Israel, especially after observing hundreds of workers entering Israel at specific points without being caught by security forces. The porous border also generates what police describe as a crime wave, as along the same routes that workers take and terror follows, thieves also smuggle stolen property into the West Bank. In a more serious case last month, a young girl in Beit Shemesh was allegedly murdered by a Palestinian illegal laborer in that city's market area. The suspect immediately fled to the West Bank, complicating police efforts to apprehend him. While by the next morning, the four buses were only filled with 168 workers, Southern District Border Police considered the night's labors a success. In addition to the workers, police also apprehended one Israeli who provided lodging to the workers, an alleged member of the support networks that police have noted are so difficult to apprehend.