Palestinians live illegally near J'lem

Workers stay in Beit Shemesh rather than risk daily security check.

Atop a ridge overlooking a construction site in Ramat Beit Shemesh, segments of shipping containers stand in a rectangle with corrugated metal sheets thrown on top of them. An electrical wire and a cable connecting a TV to an adjacent satellite dish run along the outside wall of the shack and through a glassless window into the interior, where three cots with mattresses and blankets lay empty during the midday heat yesterday. Thirty meters below, a half-dozen Palestinians were laying the second-story concrete for a brand-new, spacious home they are building as part of a new construction project a few kilometers south of one of Israel's original development towns. After saying they were from Jerusalem, the workers refused to answer additional questions. "I cannot talk to you," one of them said. When pressed, he became more forceful. "All I have to say is 'Hello,' that's it, no more. Now go." All around Beit Shemesh, the estimated hundreds of illegal Palestinian workers who live on construction sites and other less-permanent dwellings around town are a not-so-well-kept secret. With the security fence under construction and checkpoints all along the roads leading in from the West Bank, Palestinian day laborers have become anything but, choosing to stay in Israel for weeks or months at a time rather than deal with the hassle of going through security on a daily basis. "Theoretically, they are not supposed to be here," said Yossi Buchnik, a contractor who claims only to employ Romanians. "But yes, they are here. If the army can't succeed in keeping them out, then how can the people who they work for do any better?" This arrangement, which local authorities have alternately confronted and allowed, has proven mutually convenient for the contractors and Palestinians. The former take advantage of the cheap labor to build the stucco and red-tile homes. The latter are happy to have any work at all, given economic conditions in the territories. But following eight-year-old Lipaz Khemi's murder late Wednesday night, the benefits of the Palestinians' presence in town - long taken for granted - are being questioned. Five Palestinian workers were arrested shortly after the girl's body was found. According to the owner of the shop above which Khemi's body was found, a group of Palestinians sleeps in the market at night, as do some foreign workers. "The Arabs are here all the time; they used to live here before a few years ago," he said. "But there's never been any problem with them before." "They go around Beit Shemesh freely," said Aharon Yosef, 66, who has worked in the market here for 50 years. "It's the only place left in the country like this. It must have been Jews; the Arabs grew up here together with us and are not the kind for violence. They come here to work and that's it." Others, however, were questioning the security of Beit Shemesh given the large number of Palestinians around town. More than a few residents said some of the workers collaborated with Jews in black-market trade. "It has to be them," said one policeman. "It has to be part of the Arab-Jewish conflict." "Who else would do something like this?" he added, as his mother shook her head in disagreement.